Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Generous Reading List...

I've had a stack of books listed that I've intended to post; however, I haven't had the time to actually compose the posts.  That was solved this past week, during a teachers' meeting which obviously did not need my full attention.  I wrote it out in longhand in my notebook, which had the added advantage of making me look particularly engaged in the lecture.

It's rare that I read a book that I must finish in one sitting, and that immediately afterward I want to read again.  The last time that happened I must have been twelve.  Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, is one such book.  The protagonist finds himself working in the eponymous bookstore, where he soon discovers that this is no ordinary book-peddling establishment.  Yes, my next thought was -- Meth lab!  Drug front! -- but no, this is not the case.  The book itself is a puzzle story, but very much brought into the 21st century.  Another cool thing is that the cover glows in the dark, if that's any motivation for you.

Goldberg Variations is another book I've recently enjoyed.  It's by Susan Isaacs, whose books I don't usually read, but the title drew me in. (It's the title of one of my favorite pieces of music).  The book begins rather predictably -- a woman has been extremely successful in business.  However, she's been less successful in her personal life, becoming estranged from her family and alienating her best friend.  Her business needs a successor -- she's getting on in years -- so she invites her three grown grandchildren to her home to see which one is worthy of this inheritance.  These are people she barely knows, so she has a private detective agency compile dossiers for her.  The book quickly unspools into something almost philosophical and a bit unexpected, but it is enjoyable nonetheless.

I have always enjoyed Ruth Rendell (not so much, though, her books under the name Barbara Vine) and I am always happy to read a new one.  St. Zita's Society does not disappoint.  Set on a posh block in London, the book switches perspective from character to character, including the servants, whose presence is pivotal.  Although it is a bit predictable, Rendell's characters are, as always, compelling.

The Bartender's Tale, by Ivan Doig (hat tip -- E.B.) is a really pleasant book to read.  Part fictional memoir, part coming-of-age tale, it's written so easily one doesn't notice the writing at all.  The narrator, Rusty, is a child growing up in Montana together with his father, who is the bartender of the title.  The story unfolds steadily with several rather formulaic plot twists (boy-meets-girl; hi-I'm-your-kid-but-you-didn't-know-it), but the interplay between characters holds the reader's attention until the end.

HHhH is a completely different story in every way possible.  (No, the title is not a typo).  By Laurent Binet, and translated from the original French, it's mindfully written as a novel but is actually a historical narrative about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.  Heydrich, known as "The Blond Beast," was Acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, and was one of the main architects of the Holocaust.  Narrative is a good word for this book, actually, because the author shares with the reader his process of putting together the pieces of this fascinating story.

There are more books to come; I managed to crank out several posts-worth during the meeting, so I'll post again next week.  Happy reading!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Nice Long Reading List At Last

For the past few months, I've been picking out books, reading the first few chapters (or pages) and then  tossing the book away in disgust or boredom.  I never used to do this -- I always viewed starting a book as a commitment that should not be broken, no matter how idiotic or boring the story, but I've come to the conclusion that life is too short to waste on a book I'm not enjoying.

This week, I got lucky.  One book after another was engaging, funny, illuminating, and held my interest until the end.  I'll start with The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.  By Jonas Jonasson, a Swedish writer, this book is a Forrest Gump-like tale of an elderly man fleeing his 100th birthday party, while giving the reader a retrospective on his very fascinating century of life.  Very improbable, very silly, very very funny.  You can move on to more serious fare with The Resistance, by Peter Steiner.  Told in flashback form, this book explores the complicated relationship of the French with their German occupiers during World War II.  I liked this book precisely because it did not attempt to simplify the fuzzy lines between resistants and collaborators.

While you're in historical mode, pick up Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter.  This book shifts back and forth between past and present, and goes from a postwar Italian fishing village to Hollywood and back.  It's a fairly complicated story, but heartwarming and with well-drawn characters.  The Lost Prince, by Selden Edwards, is historical but in a very strange form -- the protagonist mysteriously possesses a diary that predicts the future, and it is her task to make sure it happens.  It's not the most engaging book I've ever read, and the characters are more wooden than you'd expect, but it keeps you reading until the last page.  It helps, though, if you know a bit about history because it doesn't explain much.

In the category of oddball but interesting is Special Topics in Calamity Physics.  By Marisha Pessl, this is a really good read; there are no physics involved in this book, don't fret.  No one here is what he/she seems.  It's also illustrated.  I'll say no more; go ahead and read it.  The Double Game, by Dan Fesperman, is a terrific take on a spy novel, but no one seems to know who he/she is working for or why.  Or do they?  Again, things are not what they seem.

Gold, by Chris Cleave, takes us up to the present with two Olympian athletes who are central to the story.  Kate and Zoe are competitive bikers, friends, and sometime enemies.  Add a husband (Kate's), a child (Sophie, and she's very ill), and an obsession with Star Wars, and there's your compelling read.  Enjoy!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

I'm Baaaaaaaack!

After a fairly lengthy hiatus (Passover, end of marking period, recovery period, lazy period), the blog for discriminating readers has returned.  One would think that I'd have a bonanza of reading material for you; after all, I can read a lot in four months.  Alas, that is not the case.  While I do have some nice books to talk about, the majority of the books I've read have been terribly disappointing.  At one point, I resorted to reading cookbooks exclusive of anything else for about a week.  I have some recommendations there too, for those of you who are armchair gourmands.

In non-fiction:  Two books I've read in the past few weeks stand out.  One is called On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War.  By prominent historian Bernard Wasserstein, this book was a new (to me) look at Jewish life in the European Diaspora prior to the events of 1939.  It's a fascinating study of the Jewish life that some idealize and others marginalize.  Written in a way that is accessible to one who isn't a historian, this is a compelling read.
The second pick is The Candidate:  What it Takes to Win -- And Hold -- The White House, by Samuel L. Popkin.  Let me point out that I have almost zero interest in national politics.  Abiding by the maxim that all politics is local, I don't usually spend much time reading about politics on the national level.  To be blunt, I find it boring and not a little frustrating.  This book isn't really about politics -- it's about strategy.  Popkin discusses what makes a candidate and a campaign a successful one, and pinpoints the three types of candidates:  challenger, incumbent, and successor.  He goes through famous campaigns of the twentieth century, and discusses what elements of that campaign made the candidate a success.  I was surprised at how riveting this was.
Cookbooks belong with non-fiction, I suppose, so I'll address the best of those I read in this section.  For those who enjoy reading the book as much as cooking the food, Nigella Lawson's cookbooks are just wonderful.  Even the names of some of the recipes are a hoot, and she writes in a lovely confiding way; it seems as though she's your friend and she's giving you all her favorite recipes.  I recommend How to be a Domestic Goddess as a start.  The recipes are spot-on and relatively easy to follow as well.
More interested in the recipes?  Not much of a whiz in the kitchen?  Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything:  The Basics is as good as it gets.  Bittman goes step by step through the various methods and techniques of cooking, and what's best about this book are the step-by-step pictures.  Seriously, a child could follow these instructions (assuming you allow your children to cook).

For those of you who are waiting for the meat and potatoes of this post, I'll cut to the chase and discuss fiction.  Slim pickings, that.  Other than the latest installment of the Spellman family saga (Trail of the Spellmans; not quite as funny as the others but still satisfying), there hasn't been much worth blogging about. Here are three:
The Sandcastle Girls, by Chris Bohjalian, is a personal story within a larger historical context.  This isn't an unusual structure for a book, but what makes this one stand out is the historical setting:  The Armenian Genocide of 1915.  Turkey has never admitted culpability for this action; many deny it ever happened.  The personal story is moving and sad, but to me was secondary to the larger action.
The World Without You, by Joshua Henkin, is all about a character who never even appears in the book.  Leo Frankel, the youngest child and only son, is being memorialized by his family a year after his death while on assignment in Iraq (think Daniel Pearl; this is pretty much the same).  The Frankels all descend on the family vacation home in the Berkshire Mountains for the memorial service, and the usual sort of stuff that happens when an entire grown family is under one roof begins to happen.  Except it happens with a bit of a toxic tinge, due to an impromptu announcement from the parents.  This book is rather loaded, emotionally, but it's not more than a reader would expect from the situation.  Some of the characters are better than others (I thought Amram was terribly undeveloped) but it's worth picking up and reading through.
I recently finished True Believers, by Kurt Andersen.  It alternates between the present and the 1960's, and its protagonist is a woman of some prominence who is in the process of writing a memoir.  This woman also has some secrets she's never talked about, and some of her friends from her teenage years are not ready to hear her publicize her idealistic period.  It's a lot of fun to read, and moves quickly from past to present in a way that makes the reader want to finish at one go.  Very enjoyable.  Now, go read and tell me what you think!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Because It's There

There's something special about reading a book in which the characters are experiencing nature's worst, getting frostbitten, being bitten by malarial mosquitoes, falling down mountains.  The nice part, for the reader, is the fact that he or she is usually sitting in a warm room, in a comfortable chair, usually with a hot or cold drink at the ready.  I really enjoyed reading Into The Silence:  The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, by Wade Davis.  It's not really an ideal book -- it's far too long, goes into almost exasperating detail, and the author tends to repeat himself a lot -- but for a reader who craves vicarious adventure, it is irresistible.  The lengthy backstory, while unnecessary, does give the reader a great deal of insight in the motives and behavior of the climbers who so disastrously attacked Mt. Everest in the early 1920's.  Davis spends a great deal of time and detail on the Great War experience (or lack thereof) of the climbers. It's patently obvious that this had a massive impact on each one; he does not spare his reader on the bitterness and futility of the British soldier's experience.  I found it interesting, but it can be safely skipped by a reader who wants to cut to the chase -- the three attempts on Everest.

Through ignorance, stupidity, pride, and sheer klutziness, the expeditions are not successful.  The death toll was significant in today's reckoning (at that point in time, deaths of natives were not quite as important -- an avalanche that cost seven Sherpas their lives was reported at the time as, "all whites are safe"); several members of the expedition who should not have been fit for travel at all died en route or on the way home.  Mallory and Irvine, in their third assault on the summit, disappeared.  Mallory's body was found in 1999.

If you're going to attempt the above, it's a good idea to read Into Thin Air at the same time.  By Jon Krakauer, it tells the story of the 1996 Mt. Everest climbing season, which ended in the deaths of eight climbers.  It's a good companion to the Davis book, as is this Youtube video which addresses the mystery of whether Mallory and Irvine actually reached the summit.

The next selection I read this week I absolutely could not put down, and it's been a while since I could say that about a book.  The Mirage seems to be a typical alternate history-type book with a political agenda, but turns out to be more like a fantasy novel.  By Matt Ruff, this book sucks the reader into a world in which 9/11 never happened, and the world is completely different.  I'll admit that when I first began reading, I assumed that the author had a political message, but that's not the case.  I can't say much about the book, because so much of what makes it gripping is its unexpectedness, but I found it very satisfying indeed.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

You Can't Win Them All

Shortly after I finished my previous post, I came across a new book by an author whose previous book was critically acclaimed.  Of course, I immediately took it out and began reading it.  Alas, it's difficult to churn out magnum opus after magnum opus, as City of Fortune:  How Venice Ruled the Seas proved.  By Roger Crowley, the author of Empires of the Sea, this new book seems to be merely a magazine article plumped out by arcane factoids.  Empires of the Sea was a masterwork illustrating the lever on which the fate of the western world turned; City of Fortune is a biography of a city (a beautiful and important city, but just a city).

I had a similar experience with one of my favorite mystery authors, P.D. James.  She recently published Death Comes to Pemberly, presented as a murder mystery sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and I was very anxious to sample it.  Well, after a long wait, it became available and I read it in one sitting.  What a disappointment.  Not only is it mostly a rehash of Austen's original work, with little original material, the mystery is not terribly mysterious.  I'm not in the habit of trying to figure out the endings, but I had the culprit, the situation, and the deadly secret all figured out halfway through the book.  Stick to Adam Dalgliesh, P.D. James.

I did manage to find some decent reading material, however.  Turn Right at Macchu Picchu, by Mark Adams, is a nonfiction account of his travels in Peru, combined with a history of the discovery of several hidden Inca cities.  The Inca still inspire fascination; a mountaintop people, rich in gold, who fought bravely and to no avail against the Spanish conquistadores.  Adams includes the story of Hiram Bingham, whose (pigheaded) determination led him to the discovery (and, possibly, pillaging) of these beautiful and mysterious empty cities. The writing is readable and comfortable, and Adams is even humorous at times, calling to mind Bill Bryson's brand of travel writing.

Last of all, I'll come to this week's fiction selection.  It gets more difficult to find decent fiction every week; if any of you have recommendations I'll be thrilled to try them.  This book, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, is by Margot Livesey, and I started reading it without looking at the blurb at all.  I think it actually made the reading experience more interesting, because it wasn't until chapter two that I realized that this is a book written exactly in the pattern of Jane Eyre -- and it's meant to be a "homage and modern variation" of it.

Jane Eyre's story lends itself well to parts of Gemma's life tale, but other parts make less sense.  This story takes place in the modern era, and situations in Bronte's book that were obviously morally problematic seem less so here.  Nevertheless, it's a good read.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

For Downton Abbey Watchers

The latest new series, now being shown on PBS, is a series called Downton Abbey, set in the years leading up to and including the Great War.  With a screenplay written by Julian Fellowes, it features a very Upstairs, Downstairs-like storyline, focusing on both the upper crust characters and the people who live to iron their shoelaces and bring up their tea.  Although it is a bit ridiculously soapy, it has become extremely popular watching for those who love gorgeous costumes, divine interiors, and the wonderful Dame Maggie Smith.  When it's over, one immediately goes into withdrawal, so here I am with a proposed antidote.

For watchers who want more of the atmosphere of the times of the Great War, take a look at the Loss of Eden series by John Masters.  This may be hard to find, as it's out of print, but your local library should have it.  It begins with Now, G-d Be Thanked, and it is a trilogy featuring a series of families in Kent, their servants, and their experiences throughout the war.  It reads an awful lot like Downton Abbey, and some of the situations are just as ridiculous.

Love the servants' hall?  Try Below Stairs, a memoir by Margaret Powell, a woman who spent most of her life "in service."  Unusually articulate, Powell paints a vivid picture of life belowstairs, and does it with a great deal of charm and humor.  The Remains of the Day, a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, also paints a vivid picture of the life of a butler whose life has been dedicated to the service of a somewhat delusional master, but it's a much darker picture.  (This has also been adapted as a movie, which is not bad).

If you want the laughs, P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves novels are the way to go.  Bertie Wooster, Jeeves's master in name only, is ridiculously simpleminded, and his silly escapades always lead to a conclusion where Jeeves, the perfect servant, saves the day.

Oh, and if you want something else to watch:  Julian Fellowes wrote the screenplay for Gosford Park as well. Also the Upstairs, Downstairs type theme, also Dame Maggie Smith, but it's a murder mystery.  Great fun!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Reading My Way into 2012

This week turned out to be a bonanza, reading-wise -- nearly every book I brought home from the library was at least readable!  I started with a nonfiction selection midweek (I try not to get into fiction during the workweek, because it doesn't do to get too attached when one is busy) called Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.  By Alexandra Fuller, it is the companion book to Let's Not Go to the Dogs Tonight, and is a memoir of much of her life and her mother's life living as a white African.  Nearly everyone in this book is certifiable, which is what gives the book its entertainment value.  Yes, I know mental instability is no joke, but Fuller certainly seems to find a lot of humor in the rampant manic-depressive behavior of her relatives.  Most of the book just verges on the unbelievable, but it's an engrossing read all the same.

Speaking of humor, I recently rediscovered a mystery series by Donna Leon that I'm finding hilarious.  Her Commissario Guido Brunetti series, set in Venice, is full of Venetian atmosphere, as well as Italian in-jokes.  I'm sorry to say that most Americans are not going to fully appreciate the humor; I think you really have to either be Italian or know Italian culture intimately to get the "laugh out loud" benefit of these books.  However, they are written nicely, have interesting characters, and feature compelling mysteries that are not too complex to be solved by the reader.  I'm currently enjoying Acqua Alta; I have no idea of the order in which they are written but it does not seem to matter.

If you enjoy the books of Fannie Flagg (previously reviewed here), you'll appreciate The Homecoming of Samuel Lake, by Jenny Wingfield.  Set in the American South in the 1950's, featuring a cast of incredibly quirky characters, this book bears a great deal of similarity to Flagg's stories.  One difference, however, is that while Flagg's villains border on the ridiculous, Wingfield's villains are far more seriously evil.  There's a happy ending, but not quite as rainbow tinted as you'd find in a Flagg book.

I know you're probably waiting for this week's chick-lit selection, and here it is --  Kindred Spirits, by Sarah Strohmeyer.  It has all the usual ingredients:  four friends, martini recipes, memories, at least one family feud, and everyone has something to hide.  The predictability is downright soothing.  As an antidote, one can turn to a somewhat more literary selection, and this one comes with a pedigree.  The Silver Lotus is written by Thomas Steinbeck, the son of John Steinbeck.  Flipped open at random, this book seems as though it would be dreadfully boring, but attempt it from the beginning and you won't want to put it down.  Oddly, the entire book is written as a narrative; there is no dialogue whatsoever.  Steinbeck simply tells the story of Lady Yee, a very unusual Chinese woman of the turn of the century.  This story is strangely compelling, even though it's not suspenseful or even exciting.  I can't really explain it; perhaps talented writing is all it takes?  Let me know what you think.