Friday, October 29, 2010

the right constellation of words

I have been so excited waiting for Great House to come out. I have both of Krauss's other books, A History of Love and Man Walks Into a Room. I also have all of her husband, Jonathan Safran Foer's books and love all of them. So I was pretty pumped for Great House.

"It was then, looking at his strange face, that I knew that a door had opened, but not the kind of door my father had imagined. This one I could walk through, and right away it was clear to me that I would. Another wave of nausea came over me, nausea mixed with happiness and also relief, because I sensed that one chapter of my life had ended and another was about to begin."

Like A History of Love, Great House is told from many different points of view all loosely connected through ways that aren't clear right away. Krauss is able to capture different voices during different time periods and who have such different thoughts. All of the characters are complicated and complex and parts of them are still hidden from the reader. At one point I had to make a chart to get it straight in my head how the characters related to each other - and this chart shifted as I read on.

"I chose the freedom of long unscheduled afternoon in which nothing happens but the slightest shift in mood as captured in a semicolon."

But the dominating presence in the book is a piece of furniture, a desk.This desk has special meaning to almost all of the characters and the massive, many-drawered desk is constantly moving in location and meaning.Krauss keeps her characters rooted in the Jewish faith and a great deal of the action takes place in Jerusalem.

"Alone, I could slip into a kind of stillness, into a place like that bog those children once drew, where faces rise up out of the elements and all is quiet, like the moment just before the arrival of an idea, a stillness and a peace I've only ever felt when along."

Her writing is beautiful and touching. When I reached the last page, I turned to the next hoping to read on and feeling a sinking pit in my mind that the book was over. This also happened when I read Everything is Illuminated by her hubby. I kept thinking about the loose ends and untold details and how I wanted to know more about every character and I realized that she ended the book perfectly.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

a little happiness

I clearly like Lisa See's writings since I have gone through three of her books lately. Shanghai Girls is a little different from the other two; it is more modern and a lot of the action takes place in America. However, the essence of the story, the relationship between two sisters and the struggle to connect with their past traditions are familiar.

Pearl and May are sisters in Shanghai during the 1930s. Their family has money so they overlook much of the unpleasant aspects of the world around them (like dead babies in the street and malnourished men pulling their rickshaws) and instead focus on fashion and romance.

Their father has arranged marriages to men who live in America for the girls, but the refuse to go. The Japanese attack China and the girls and their mother do their best to make a run for it. They see and experience firsthand the horrific aspects of war, yet somehow Pearl and May survive and make their way to America, where they are put in Angel Island and kept for months in prison like conditions before they are able to join their husbands in an America that makes it very clear they are not wanted.

"You're like a bird that's been freed from a cage,' May says, 'but doesn't remember how to fly. You're my sister, but I don't know where you've gone in your mind. You're so apart from me now."

See is so great at capturing the complexities of relationships and the heartache that can come from unspoken words and unasked questions. Pearl and May share a deep secret that turns out to have disastrous effects on their family and leaves the end of the book very open.

"As I speak, I'm reminded of the old saying that disasters go in through the mouth, disasters come out of the mouth, meaning that words can be like bombs themselves."

My one complaint about this book is the ending. I am not sure if See is planning on doing a sequel to the book (I'm guessing not) but I just felt that we get all of this build-up and then see the result of the sister's actions but not a resolution. Not as good as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but still an alright read.

Also, poll is closed but since the only one who voted was my fiancee - yup, boyfriend proposed this weekend :) - I am going to just read what I want. Also I might have put the Magus in his car when he left so it'll be hard for me to read it. I'm thinking Madame Bovary since I don't think I have read a lot of French fiction.

Friday, October 22, 2010

religion, while a fine thing, could be taken too far

After reading Bleak House and The Idiot, I needed something a little lighter and frankly a little more humorous. So I turned to Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. Pyramids doesn't have any similar characters from the other books (with the exception of Death, of course) and seems like it could be read without reading the ones before it. But I would recommend it.

Young prince Teppic is sent to Ankh-Morpork's assassin school and is not looking forward to going back to his kingdom, which resembles ancient Egypt. But when his father dies, Teppic goes home to take over the throne and build his father the largest pyramid that has ever been built.

"It wasn't a particularly pleasant smile. It was thin and dried-up, a smile with all the warmth long ago boiled out of it, people normally smiled like that when they had been dead for about two years under the broiling desert sun. But at least you felt he was making the effort."

These pyramids mess with the fabric of time and through some quantum physics sends Teppic's land into a new dimension. Thankfully, Teppic and a handmaiden escaped on a camel who happens to be the best mathematician on the planet. Teppic then struggles to find a way to bring his country back into the here and now.

"These men were philosophers, he thought. They had told him so. So their brains must be so big that they have room for ideas that no one else would consider for five seconds."

The writing was just what I needed, clever and dry and ridiculous at times. I remain in love with Discworld.

"They are great minds, he told himself. These are men who are trying to work out how the world fits together, not by magic, not by religion, but just by inserting their brains in whatever crack they can find and trying to lever it apart."

Don't forget to vote on my next classic read! There are only four days left!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What can you do? It's fate.

First of all, how awesome is this copy of The Idiot? Super awesome, I know. I snatched it from the boyfriend. Dostoevsky never lets me down.

Prince  Lev Nikolayevitch Myshkin returns to Russia after years of treatment for his disease of "idiocy" in Switzerland. He makes a friend on the train who talks passionately about his love for Nastassya Filippovna. Myshkin searches for his nearest relatives, the Yepanchins. They have three lovely daughters, the youngest, Aglaya, the loveliest of all. Despite being labeled as an idiot, Myshkin makes a good impression on everyone he meets and seems to speak his mind honestly and without regard for social norms.

"And what made me take you for an idiot before? You notice things other people never notice. One could really talk to you, but - one had better not."

There is a scandal involving Nastassya Filippovna, a "fallen woman" who everyone seems to want to marry. Myskin himself is so taken with her beauty that when he meets her he pleads with her not to marry Ganya.

This novel is told in four parts. The first introduces us to a wide range of characters, the second reconciles Myshkin with the Yepanchins, the third has some romantic intrigue between Myshkin and Aglaya and an attempted suicide by one of the characters, and the fourth brings about the inevitable clash between Aglaya and Nastassya over Myshkin.

"But all this had flown from his mind, everything except the one fact that she was sitting there beside him and that he was looking at her, and it made no difference to him then what she was talking about."

These characters are so complicated that I feel hard-pressed to sum them up in a few lines. Nastassya views herself as a person with a most shameful past and constantly runs between Myshkin and her other suitor, Rogozhin. She is the ultimate drama-queen ex girlfriend bent on her own destruction. Myshkin sees the good in everyone and can not hold a grudge to save his life (or sanity). Despite his honest love for Aglaya, he cannot lie about his sympathy for Nastassya.

"And how can he love two women? With two different kinds of love?"

The writing is just amazing in my opinion. For an author to have a character say "I don't love you" and without any explanation the reader knows that she is absolutely in love with the other is a feat. Dostoevsky paints the characters so well that we know what is going on in their minds.

"But in later years the general never complained about his early marriage, never attributed it to the rash folly of youth and he so respected his wife, and at times so feared her, that he actually, in face, loved her."

Thank you for voting for this one! I adored it. I put another poll up for my next big read - so be sure to vote! At the moment I have a couple of lighter books going, Shanghai Girls by Lisa See and Pyramids by Terry Pratchett.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The list of my souls.

I realized when going through the book I keep all my reading notes in that I haven't blogged about reading Dead Souls by Gogol. I am, and always will be, a big fan of Russian Lit and have read a lot of Gogol's short stories. This novel is unfinished but is still pretty substantial and fleshed out.

"it became clear that, though all else in the world might conceivably be possible, never could the hatchet be buried between ladies who had quarrelled over a neglected visit."

Our main character is Chichikov and his is on a mission to collect as many "souls" as possible. In Russia there were serfs that were often referred to as souls, as in he had an estate with five thousand souls. Chickikov goes to towns and people's houses and has them write over all of their "dead souls" to him. Because (and this was a little confusing to me) the landowners still had to pay tax on these dead people, but Chichikov was trying to wheel and deal some serious fraud.

"and the spring night which, laying its elbows upon the tree-tops, and spangled with stars, and vocal with the nightingales which were pouring forth warbled ditties from the recesses of the foliage, kept glancing through the door, and regarding the company within."
Chichikov integrates himself so well into a new town, making friends with all of the local officials and getting invited to every one's house for tea. Appearances are extremely important to him as people are not so sure about selling their dead peasants and he has to warm himself up to them first.

The first big chunk of the novel follows Chichikov in one particular town and then towards the end time passes and we jump places as there are parts of the manuscript missing. We learn a little about Chichikov's upbringing and how money was placed as the most important thing and strives to get money by whatever means.
"And even devious methods I employed only when I saw the straight road would not serve my purposes well."
 It is hard to judge a novel that is unfinished. I am not sure that I liked the character enough to enjoy a whole book about him. I would sooner read his "The Nose" or "The Overcoat" - those are amazing. 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Does art save?

While working my way through the Idiot (almost done with part two of four) I took a break yesterday and took a long bath with a graphic novel. I am a big fan of the saying "plain Jane" so this book caught my eye at the library. It is part of DC's short-lived Minx books which were geared towards teen girls. Since I am also a perpetual teenager, this seemed like a good pick.

Jane is present at a bombing in Metro City and her parent move her out to the suburbs where things will be "safer." Jane has trouble finding her place in the new high school. She wants to be friends with three girls who are outcasts but interesting and also all named Jane (or Jayne).

All of the characters seem to be just really exaggerated stereotypes. Drama Jane is always quoting playwrights and dressing up dramatically. Science Jayne spends her time getting to the lab early and doing homework at lunch. Sporty Jane is on all the teams but only as a bench warmer. And our main Jane isn't sure what she is.

After the bombing, Jane grabbed the notebook of a man who was next to her and writes him letters throughout the book, even though he is in a coma back in Metro City. Because of his sketchbook, she is inspired to create a new club, P.L.A.I.N. People Loving Art In Neighborhoods. She gets the other Janes in and they quickly get to work creating guerrilla art installations around their town. The local law enforcement does its best to shut P.L.A.I.N. down, but our gals keep on trucking.

I love the idea of art out in the community. In college, one of the art classes did something like this. As we students woke up and went around campus to classes we saw cut-out silhouettes of figures dancing or sitting in random places. I remember interviewing the professor for a reporting assignment and he had been really excited about getting art out where people can see it in unexpected places. Even my girl Keri Smith has a book on how to be a guerrilla artist, which I sadly do not own.

I liked this graphic novel and would recommend it even though the end was a little abrupt. I am interested in seeing if I can get more of the Minx books, and think that it is too bad that DC stopped that endeavor. Girls like comics too!

So readers, what do you think of art in the community like this? Have you ever experienced art in an unexpected place? What did you think about it? Don't be shy; leave me some comments!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I caught trends like I caught colds

While reading Bleak House, I broke up my reading time with this book of essays written by teenage girls. The editor, Amy Goldwater, sent out a request for submission on any subject, as long as the writing was true. She was amazed with the results and complies them according to subject and then by age.

"Karl Marx said that religion was the opiate of the masses. We, Mr. Marx! We have this oh-so-shiny new development. It's called the television, and if it isn't religion, then I don't know what is."

There are 58 different girls who have pieces in this book and each one was interesting and made me revert back to my teenage self. The angst of high school, parents divorce, crushes, and the struggle to fit in all made me taste the cafeteria egg salad sandwiches and feel the sting of tears in my eyes from notes passed back and forth. But it also made me think of the fun of being a teenager, the thrill of driving anywhere with your friends, sneaking out, and wearing too much makeup.

Some of the essays are better written than others, but these are still developing writers. This book is an easy read for the most part (if you can get past those high school flash-backs) and was a nice contrast to Dickens. These girls come from so many different backgrounds and all have voices that demand to be heard. And I was happy to listen.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fashion and whiskers have been my weakness

Well readers, true to my word, I finally finished reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens, since the poll deemed it so. I am not an avid fan of Dickens and frankly expected this book to be dry, boring and bleak.

Bleak House chronicles the court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce and all those who are connected with it in some way or another. The court system is portrayed very harshly as a massive, time-consuming and expensive endeavor that never seems to get anything done.

"Suffer any wrong that can be done you, rather than come here."

Ester Summerson is our main narrator (for the most part) and she is under the care of one of the Mr. Jarndyce and friends with his young cousins, Rick and Ada, the other Jarndyces in the aforementioned law suit.

Dickens covers the whole scope here, from the high and mighty family of the Deadlocks down to poor little Jo, a boy who lives covered in filth in the heart of London and is as poor as can be.

"Sir Leicester is generally in a complacent state and rarely bored. When he has nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness. It is a considerable advantage to a man, to have so inexhaustible a subject."

Ester falls somewhere in between - there is a mystery about her birth (which is no real mystery, at least not to me) and she gets a lot of marriage proposals for a girl who gets smallpox and has her face altered for the worse. I found her to be most frustrating and annoying because she always is chipper and trying to work hard and do her best to make everyone around her happy that she seems to have no emotional range. Which might be why she got all those proposals, who knows?

"I often thought of the resolution I had made on my birthday, to try to be industrious, contented, and true-hearted, and to do some good to some one, and win some love if I could; and indeed, indeed, I felt almost ashamed to have done so little and to have so much."

Late in the game, 700 pages or so late to be clear, there is a murder and a great hunt to discover the true killer. Again, although it seems like Dickens wants to throw us off my suspecting a few different characters, I could tell how things were going to go down.

I think that I get too distracted by the social commentary aspect of Dickens writing to actually enjoy the story. I did laugh and chuckle at some of his phrasing and I think that he may be the best at naming secondary characters, but I really did not care about the characters. And that for me is a big deal. But I have to give credit, Mr. Turverydrop, Mrs. Pardiggle, Mr. Jellby, Mr. Smallweed and Mr. Bucket are all pretty great names.

"Everything that Mr. Smallweed's grandfather ever put away in his mind was a grub at first, and is a grub at last. In all his life he has never bred a single butterfly."

Next up is the Idiot, since that got just as many votes as Bleak House. I know my man Dostoevsky will not let me down and am really excited to read this one.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Yeah, that's pepper spray.

How Did You Get This Number by Sloane Crosley is still pretty new, but as I am still trying to save every penny, I got this from the library. I read I Was Told There'd Be Cake last year and loved it, so I had some pretty high hopes for this one.

"After that first day, I awoke to the vague but identifiable smell of cheese. The kind of cheese where if you didn't know it was cheese, you'd think someone took a crap on the metro and set it on fire. And then put it out with milk."

Crosley writes about her life as a late twenty-something, referring back to her past to tell stories of her childhood pets, jumping forward to tell of getting kicked out of Paris and enduring a shady relationship. And on that particular smell that lives in taxi cabs:

"This is a scent that does not waft in real time so much as it seeps into your memory to replace every pleasant aroma you have ever smelled with its pungency."

She has a way with words that sits so well with me, but this book lacked the humour that her first one did.The stories were a little long and seemed to drag in places, but still left me with a smile, if not the belly-laughs that her first one gave me.

I am working my way through Bleak House and have my copy of the Idiot on hand. Dickens is surprisingly not what I expected and I am enjoying the book a lot. I have a few "lighter" reads to break up my time so I will still be updating while working through this massive Dickens book. My past experience with Dickens is mainly A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations. Any thoughts on favorite Dickens books?