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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Review: Little Bee by Chris Cleave

I'm not one to write negative reviews. Just because something doesn't resonate with me doesn't mean it won't with someone else. For example, I hate detective fiction. Literally, I hate it, yet it remains one of the bestselling genres. What I'm saying here is that just because I'm a bookseller or just because I write reviews that doesn't mean I am always right about books. Mostly because there is no always right about books. Literature is an art - the appreciation of art is entirely subjective.

Now, on to my first bad review. I did not like Chris Cleave's "Little Bee." I say this knowing that I am not going to hurt Cleave or his book sales by doing so. This thing is flying off the shelves - not just at my store but everywhere. It was that mountain of sales, along with the very cryptic blurb, that made me recommend "Little Bee" to my mom (aside: my mom is a crazy-fast and voracious reader; if I have a question about a book or am on the fence about whether or not I want to read it I make her read it first. It's a pretty awesome system). She loved it and raved about it for weeks (see what I mean about the whole subjective thing?), which directly contributed to it getting thrown in to the CHB bookclub ring. Mom's glowing review and, again, the cryptic blurb led to the book being chosen by the group.

I now want to share with you said cryptic blurb. It begins:
We don't want to tell you WHAT HAPPENS in this book. It is truly a SPECIAL STORY and we don't want to spoil it.
Followed by a very brief (only forty words) synopsis. Enticing, right? You're expecting to read some rare and "magical" story. Eh, not so much.

I won't say too much because the blurb specifically asks me not to divulge the plot. But I will say this, Chris Cleave is dealing with some deep ethical and moral issues in the novel. I'm not afraid of an issues novel and I generally prefer sad books to happy ones (my favorite book ends with the now completely friendless main character shooting his only friend (his dog) and ruminating for a while on the shattered skull and then turning his gun on himself - but it's good!). However, all through "Little Bee" I felt like Cleave was dragging me through the muck and saying "Look at this! This is muck!" Instead of letting me see it for myself; letting me feel the sadness, hopelessness, of the characters and learning of the grim truth through them.

I don't think it hurt the story to tell you that the eponymous "Little Bee" is a refugee seeking asylum. Chris Cleave both rightfully and obviously has a heart for refugees like her. However, he never fully formed her as a character. It was supposed to be enough that she was a refugee juxtaposed against an affluent English couple. For me, that's not enough. I need characters to believe in and care about. This book was utterly devoid of them.

"Little Bee" is all issues and questions of morality but no soul. I commend Cleave for writing about a difficult subject, but the sum of his labors amounted to a contrived mess. I do think he's an author to watch though, I expect he'll grow in his talent and I look forward to more and better books from him.

Friday, April 22, 2011

My Reading Life*

I went to Twitter this morning to post my #fridayreads and noticed that some people were using the amended hashtag #goodfridayreads. Some people say it's in regard to Good Friday others say it's Goodreads. Whatever the case may be it got me thinking. My reads during holy week should be a bit more, well, holy. I'm currently reading a fantastic middle-grade fantasy/fairytale by Catherynne M. Valente called "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland" but I'll talk more about it when it comes out next month. All of this leads me to today's post: I'm usually a one-book-at-a-time kind of lady, but I've got a little book polygamy going on this year. It's all because...

I'm finally doing it! I'm reading arguably the most culturally important book in the western world. You probably have a copy in your house even if you haven't read it (I have six) - it's The Holy Bible. When I told John I was going to be writing about the Bible today he said "are you going to review it? Because you could start with 'really impressive debut!'" and knowing that I'm currently working on the Old Testament he added "and I'm looking forward to the sequel." My husband being a cute and funny idiot aside, no, I am not reviewing the Bible. Who would even want to try? Moreso, I want to write about my experience.

I was raised in a religious household, so I've always been familiar with the Bible; I've even read various bits and pieces throughout the years, but I've never read it through. A few months ago I searched and researched looking for the right study Bible for me. In a philosophy class in school I was introduced to Robert Alter's translations. I can tell you from both a scholarly and spiritual reading perspective they are awesome. Trouble is, he hasn't translated the whole thing. I've got the books he has translated to read later, but for now I wanted the whole thing. I wanted to watch the spine break and hear it groan as I made my way through this 2,000+ page trek, so I kept looking.

I finally settled on "The Harper Collins Study Bible" in the New Revised Standard Version. This particular study Bible is well suited , much like Alter's translation, both to spiritual and scholarly study. Having grown up Southern Baptist it was hard to leave King James behind, but I'm sure you will be happy to know that this translation totally lacks the word begat. Everyone is the better for that.

I've only just finished Exodus (hint: that's only the second book) and at the rate I'm going (five chapters a day, which averages just under ten double columned pages) I'll finish in a year. This is a grand endeavor and I'm really glad I've started it. Every book I read I approach with the goal of bettering myself from having read it. This book just happens to be meant for that. Plus, my dad is really proud of me, so there's that. The only downside is that now all I really want to talk about is the Bible and people are starting to think I'm a weirdo. So, should you want to go on this journey with me - please do! I am dying to talk to someone about it, and difficult tasks are always made easier through the buddy system!

*Yes, I stole that phrase from Pat Conroy's new memoir. But it's perfect!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Review: The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

Experimental novels often flounder within their own conceit (can you say "House of Leaves"), "The Tragedy of Arthur" by Arthur Phillips is not one of those novels. It triumphs over it, sucks you into it, and almost has you believing that Phillips' father either wrote or found a Shakespearean play. I say almost in my case, but I've seen a few other reviewers who are questioning the veracity of this tale. The web has been conveniently wiped clean of Phillips' familial history, but I've read him before and I know how fantastically unreliable his narrators can be.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, you haven't even been properly introduced yet. Arthur Phillips' new novel "The Tragedy of Arthur" is prefaced by a note from the Editors of his publisher, Random House, stating that what you have in your hand is a copy of a lost (and previously unheard of) play by one William Shakespeare (maybe you've heard of him?) titled "The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain." The Editors go on to tell you to dive into the play and skip the 250+ introduction by the guy, Arthur Phillips, who delivered it to them. The first line of the introduction makes it obvious why they may suggest this particular reading route.

Phillips begins with, "I have never much liked Shakespeare." Only then to delve into a memoir, not at all a proper introduction to a newly discovered Shakespeare play. Phillips goes through the whole memoir kit and caboodle (the difficult childhood, the deadbeat dad); all leading up to this - his dad was a forger. A man who believes that forged documents and faked crop circles are a kind of modern magic. Trickery and sorcery as one, he practices what he sees as victimless crimes in order to make the world more interesting.

You may find yourself asking why this is relevant. Well, Phillips' father is the one who gave him "The Tragedy of Arthur" and this introduction cum memoir is his way of hashing out for himself and you, the reader, rather or not it is real. Of course, "once you know it isn't Shakespeare, none of it sounds like Shakespeare" but if it sounds enough like Shakespeare maybe we could make-believe that it is. Isn't that a bit of magic in our postmodern world?

I loved this novel. It's the type of smart-funny book that you don't read too often. As I said in the beginning, it fully owns its conceit. Within the memoir/introduction Phillips takes shots at academics, Anti-Stratfordians, and memoirists (he even name checks James Frey). The faux memoir goes on effortlessly. So much so that even though a lot of it is unfortunate or even horrible, you kinda want to believe it's true.

Then there is the Shakespeare stuff. Obviously this guy wrote a Shakespeare play. In iambic pentameter. Seriously. That alone is impressive. The play is good too, more impressive. Some lines are really great as is this couplet that caught my attention, "And so do kingdoms fall by vice's art/ When righteous men in conscience stand apart." Phillips' mentions these particular lines in the introduction, I think he was quite impressed by them himself.

Beyond the play itself I really enjoyed Phillips's discussion of Shakespeare. He goes from being bored by the Bards' worshipers to bemused by his detractors and eventually, with the upcoming publication of the play, surrounded by groups of Shakespearologists. But I think more than the idea of Shakespeare, the idea behind the novel pertains to experiencing something new, living some of that magic Phillips' father tried to create. He describes this best when explaining how his twin sister felt upon receiving a copy of the play from their father after having completed Shakespeare's body of work:
She had already, at that young age, experienced something coming to an end, a love affair's first flush, and now, to discover that there was still (possibly) one left: she was torn between wanting to stay up all night reading it and rationing her last virgin pleasure over weeks or months.
Arthur Phillips has come away from all this having written a fantastic tragi-comic novel, a faux memoir, and a freaking Shakespeare play (alliteration unintended but remaining unchanged). You have to appreciate that. Definitely a good read.

Advance Reading Copy reviewed from Random House

Friday, April 15, 2011

Nonna's Review: Swamplandia by Karen Russell

My Nonna (it's Italian for grandmother which is weird because her family is German) is awesome. Seriously, upon meeting her you will wish that she was your grandmother. Nonna has a purse and a candy drawer from which she freely delivers gifts to her thirteen grandchildren, of whom I am obviously the best. She's 71, hysterical, and can do the Charleston like nobody's business. She also reads books and talks to me about them.

This is what she had to say about Karen Russell's "Swamplandia"

It was very different. A little suspense in there and a tiny bit of romance, not really romance but sweet moments, even between the sisters. I thought it was well written. It was just so different that it kept my interest - after the first 20 pages or so I really got more into it and it was hard to put it down. You really didn't know what was going to happen in the end. It was one of the first books in a long time I hadn't read the end first and I couldn't figure out what was going to happen. I really liked the way it ended. It was just different; I've never read one really like it. The story was told by a twelve year old girl. I was impressed once I got into it. I really enjoyed it; it just didn't catch me right off. I would recommend it to both young adults and older adults. It's a good book for anyone who likes to read for pleasure.

I know that's piqued your interest, so here's a basic sysnopsis of the book from Goodreads:
The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline—think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades—and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as the World of Darkness. Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamp landia!’s legendary headliner, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her brother has secretly defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their sinking family afloat; and her father, Chief Bigtree, is AWOL. To save her family, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the Underworld, a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Review: Bossypants by Tina Fey

Reading Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” really felt like having a conversation with her. While that is awesome, the only problem was that it felt like she was having a conversation with,well, me. Instead of speaking to an intimate friend in whom she could reveal her most guarded beliefs and opinions. But then, this is my first celebrity memoir so I didn’t really have any expectations unless you count “oh my god, I love Tina Fey” as an expectation.

“Bossypants” is really less of a memoir and more a collection of remembrances by “an achievement-oriented, drug-free, adult virgin,” as Fey describes her younger self. You won’t find any essays on Fey as a feminist icon or any talk about her cultural relevance at all. What is laid out for you here in 275 pages is an expose on awkwardness. And Tina Fey owns it.

The book begins with a letter to the reader outlining reasons why you may be reading her book of which my favorite must be:

Maybe it’s seventy years in the future and you found this book in a stack of junk being used to block the entrance of an abandoned Starbucks that is now a feeding station for the alien militia.

I mean, that’s why I picked it up. After our letter we get an “Origin Story” and a love letter to her father, Don Fey, which features my favorite line in the book: “Don Fey is not going to put up with that. Don Fey is a grown-ass man! Black people find him stylish!” Basically, Don Fey sounds awesome and suspiciously a lot like Jack Donaghy.

As she enters her discussions of her time in improv and on SNL, we see Fey discuss a little about life in the boy’s club. She touches on her participation in the expansion of women’s roles on the show and behind the scenes, but mostly just to say that she was proud to have participated in the expansion of women’s roles on the show and behind the scenes. I would have liked to see a little more of her reaction to the changes, but I think the point she may have been making was to see for yourself. Tina Fey left the job of head writer at SNL to star in and produce her own show (30 Rock), obviously things went well – even if she does have a vagina.

Those who were looking for some kind of feminist manifesta and those looking for a celebrity tell-all will surely be disappointed in "Bossypants" but those of us who love Tina Fey's brand of self-deprecating humor will find plenty here to enjoy. I read it in one sitting then called my sister and husband to rehash my favorite bits. Like I said on Twitter, I agree with the Trees quoted on the jacket, "Totally worth it."

Friday, April 8, 2011

Forgotten Friday #1

Forgotten Friday is a weekly meme started by Jamie at bookmarked to feature backlist books that we’ve always wanted to read but keep forgetting about.

This week’s featured book is …

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Yeah, I know, I’m hanging my head in shame over these. I somehow missed Mark Twain in high school and in college. I’ve read plenty of his essays (which are all fantastic), but these two? Nope.

With all the controversy over the censorship of Huck Finn a few months ago it really brought these two titles to the forefront of my mind and moved them towards the top of my never ending to-be-read list.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Review: The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

Aristophanes' “Lysistrata” serves as the center but not really the source of Meg Wolitzer's new novel “The Uncoupling.” For those who need a refresher on the ancient comedy, the eponymous Lysistrata convinces the women of Greece to withhold sex from men until they end the Peloponnesian War. The play is rather bawdy to say the least, which was one thing that bothered me about Wolitzer's book – no high school would perform this play. That's not really the point though, is it?

In “The Uncoupling” a high school in Stellar Plains, New Jersey does indeed perform “Lysistrata” to curious effect. The play casts a spell over the town, from lusty teenagers to bored middleagers, all of the women turn their backs on sexual activity to the general bemusement of their partners. It's funny and sometimes sad. I kept going back and forth with this novel: did I like it? Did I not?

The more I think about it the more I realize I did enjoy it. The writing is really great and moves quickly plus I like and believe in most of the characters. However, what I like most about the book is that I am still thinking about it. Wolitzer uses a clever story and loads of wit to delve into the reality of relationships at many levels. We see new love, dying love, stable love, and just plain lust dissected once the spell takes hold of the town. Whether or not I agree with Wolitzer about the importance of sex in these relationships (in every instance once the sex ends the relationship comes to a standstill – my biggest beef with the book) is not really the point. “The Uncoupling” made me think about relationships, how we treat our partners, and the value of joined lives.

A book that gives me pause to evaluate my life? That's a winner. Not to mention the fact that Meg Wolitzer is a good writer and this is an interesting, funny, and entertaining read. I would definitely recommend you try this one.

Advance Reading Copy reviewed from Riverhead Books


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