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Monday, April 23, 2012

World Book Night: The Final Batch

We've come to the end of the road. I made it through twenty-three of the thirty Wold Book Night picks. Couple that with the six I'd read in the past and we're up to twenty-nine with only one odd duck. I'm still making my way through The Stand and I can't picture myself finishing that one before I go out to distribute copies of A Prayer for Owen Meany tonight. Here are my reviews for the last of the books I have read:

Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is the story of a young boy trying to escape the cycle of poverty and alcoholism that is life on the Spokane Indian Reservation. This is such a fantastic book. It is funny and tragic and perfectly executed between the prose and the illustrations. The idea to tell the story in the form of Junior's diary was an inspired one; I don't know if this could have been a novel for young adults without the humor and levity that the format allows. This is such an important book and such a great book for younger readers. One of the many goals of art is to act as a mirror to society. The Absolutely True Diary functions as one of those mirrors. I encourage you to hold it up - you may not like all that you see.

Before I talk about Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings I'll let you know why, it sings for the same reason that Sisyphus is happy. It sings because it must, because life is what it is and you get the most out of it through happiness and song. Angelou's memoir feels very reserved as though this is a memoir written by someone that does not relish talking about themselves. Maybe it is just that we are in the midst of an age of shock and awe memoirs, but the quiet reservation and doling out of secrets that Angelou's book contains made it feel all the more honest. This is a sad story but one about personal triumph; it is inspirational in the best sense of the word (especially, when Angelou talks about the power of literature).

The sense of deep longing that Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake encompasses is emotionally galvanizing. It is the story of Gogol Ganguli, a second generation Indian immigrant to the States, and the distance between his two cultures. It is very much so a novel about the difficulty of defining oneself, and Gogol's yearning is the force that propels it onward. It is a story that is peppered with loss, and it is moving and beautifully written. Definitely a good choice for World Book Night - I can imagine many passionate readers giving this one out tonight.

Q is for Quel Surpise. I was not looking forward to Q is for Quarry by Sue Grafton. I've already been through one gory mystery with this list and I did not want to force myself through another. But I read it anyway and it was good! I'm ashamed to admit that I thought all mysteries were the same prior to cracking the spine on this one. Q is not violent and it is much more about the characters than the mystery at its core. This is the seventeenth book in as twenty-six book series that Grafton has been able to sustain by creating compelling characters. I was definitely surprised to enjoy the book and I'll probably check in with Kinsey Milhone again sometime.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

World Book Night: The Fourth Batch

Ann Patchett's Bel Canto is a fictional version of a hostage situation that occurred in Peru in the '90s. During the birthday party of a prominent international businessman, guerrilla terrorists took everyone in attendance hostage, from the vice president of Peru to the opera singer hired for the evening's entertainment. I was lulled into this book just as the hostages Patchett describes were lulled into a sense of normalcy within their terrifying situation that took place over weeks. I was excited in the beginning, got a bit bored, and then I became sympathetic to everyone involved. Patchett did a great job of not judging her characters. She laid out their motivations and left the rest for the reader to mull over.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini was another of these books that I had already made my mind up about before opening the cover. Frankly, I feel that all of my suspicions about this one proved true. So heavy handed were the themes and "morals," so utterly contrived was the plot. I felt that this was as manipulative as My Sister's Keeper, but it is more widely accepted because it is about men (and foreign men at that). Every page screamed at me: life is hard! People feel things! But in the end, I felt nothing but frustration. I even rolled my eyes a few times, which I haven't done since I read Stephanie Meyer.

Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is amazing. It is practically a perfect book. I haven't settled on exactly what type of book it is though. It's a memoir that's also a novel that's really a collection of short stories about the Vietnam war. O'Brien describes the time in Vietnam as it really happened, but in order to do this he differentiates between story-truth and happening-truth. The point is not whether or not the things that are described actually happened. As O'Brien explains, with a true war story you don't have to ask whether or not it really happened; it is true nonetheless. The way that these two forms of truth oppose and compliment each other coupled with the way O'Brien the forty-year-old writer steps in to the story of O'Brien the twenty-year-old soldier make this an absolutely unforgettable book that everyone should read.

Scifi is really not my thing, so I did not expect to love Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. I got so bored with the descriptions of starfighters, null gravity, and battle simulations. This is just one of those situations where the book and I did not mesh. However, I can see why it is popular and definitely what makes it a good choice for the classroom. It is the story of Ender Wiggin, a strategical child prodigy and the adults who manipulate him to their means. There is also a heavy subplot about Ender's siblings that I was actually much more interested in than Ender's story (where Ender's story was militarily based his siblings' told the political side of this world at war). All in all a good book, just not the right fit for me.

Another batch of books that I can claim. As I mover further down the list (only five books to go), I can't wait to find out what I will be reading this time next year.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

World Book Night: The Third Batch

I'm really rounding the corner here. Just a few days left, but I've still got plenty of books to talk about.

We'll begin with A History of Love by Nicole Krauss. I was expecting to love this one. Novels about the Jewish experience and dislocation after the Holocaust are kind of my thing. Plus, Kraus is married to Jonathan Safran Foer whose book, Everything is Illuminated, is one of my all time favorites. Krauss shares with her husband a desperate clutching at cleverness and postmodern conventions, but she does not handle them quite as well. However, the loneliness of Leo Gursky, so aptly described, comes close to bringing the novel to Foer's heights. The book is balanced between the point of view of the aging Gursky and pre-teen Alma who are looking for each other without realizing it. I think Alma portions of the book, written mostly in lists, may be what keep me from loving it. The lists became tiresome. This is a really good novel; it just did not live up to my (perhaps unfair) expectations.

Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife is another novel about loneliness (side bar: it's been fun finding connections between the 30 WBN picks) I approached this one knowing absolutely nothing about the plot, and my ignorance paid off with the first few chapters. I had no clear idea what was going on with any of the characters or their motivations; the constant questioning was really what made the first few chapters of the novel. As I said, this is a book about loneliness, but it is also about passion and bitterness and sex. Passionate sex, bitter sex, lots of sex. It is the winter of 1907 and Ralph Truitt is looking for a reliable wife. Besides reliability he has no other real requirements. He just wants someone modest and kind to fulfill the public wifely duties of the richest man in town. Catherine Land, who replies to his ad seeking such a wife, hopes to create these attributes within herself. Truitt is rich and Catherine is beautiful - all should go well. Except there is so much more to it than that. This was an enjoyable novel. The characters were surprising. Not my typical read, but I enjoyed it.

Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo may end up being my favorite book on this list. It is the sweetest book I have ever read. This is the story of ten-year-old Opal and her dog, Winn Dixie. It's a story that reminds us of the emotional depths within children that often go ignored. Writers like DiCamillo amaze me. She crafted an amazing book about loneliness (there's that word again) and the power of animal-human bonds, and it is written for a ten-year-old audience. Do yourself a favor and read this one.

The subject of Zeitoun by Dave Eggers is Abdulrahman Zeitoun who weathers hurricane Katrina then canoes around the flooded city delivering food and water to animals that have been left behind and helping his neighbors and fellow citizens as he can. So, the book is about Zeitoun but it is also about how truly terrible people can be to one another and how all humanity can go out the window in the face of chaos. Eggers is able to display this through Zeitoun's wrongful incarceration as a member of Al Qaeda. Zeitoun is not a terrorist - he just happens to be Syrian, but in post-Katrina New Orleans those things were seen as one in the same. What happened to Zeitoun and his friends following his arrest is hard to believe. However, I have to separate my feelings for the book from the events it describes. By that I mean that I did not always trust Eggers depictions of the Zeitoun's pre-Katrina life, especially in regards to Abdulrahman's American born wife, Kathy. Bear in mind, I read this book shortly after the announcement that Zeitoun had been arrested for spousal abuse. This information shed a certain light on things said by Eggers, Zeitoun, and others that read as attempts to avoid certain aspects of the man's personality. I still think that the book is an important one to read, both as evidence of the colossal mismanagement of a city and its people in distress as well as then tenuousness of basic human rights.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is a book that was written for me. It is about family, religion, social accountability...basically, all of my intellectual sticking points. Through this story of a missionary and his family in the Congo, Kingsolver allows her readers to reflect upon practically every aspect of their lives. I went from dwelling on my moral culpability in modern day Africa, to my own family dynamics, to pondering the values of spirituality versus religion. There is so much in this book. It is the type of novel that reminds me why I want to be a writer, but makes me feel like I could never be one.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

World Book Night: The Second Batch

I mentioned in my last update that this has been rather a mixed bag of books I've loved and those I've (umm...) not loved so much, but really I think that's fantastic. These 30 books are meant to start conversations between over one million people. One million people may not want to read my favorite book. Half of those people, maybe even all of those people, may want to read a book that I've loathed. I find that incredibly comforting. Books aren't going anywhere and they are just going to become more and more varied. This is just another reason why I love World Book Night! But for now, let's get on with the show.

Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger was one of the books I just was not looking forward to reading. A book about football, really? 370 pages, seriously? Whose idea was this? And then I read it and it's awesome. This is a book about football like Watership Down is a book about bunnies. Friday Night Lights is about small town America and what keeps people going; football is just the lens through which we view the story. It is also very, very much a book about race - how things have and have not gotten better in this country through the years. And it resonates with people. Obviously. Bissinger's story has made the jump from article to book, to film, to television series. I feel that this book takes a look at the heart of who we are and who we want to be as a nation.

I finally read The Hunger Games, now half of my teenage customers can relax (the other half is still mad that I haven't read Looking for Alaska yet, to which I say I'm getting there!). Does anything really need to be said about this one at this point? It was the most requested of the 30 titles on the World Book Night list. But this I will say, I really enjoyed reading it so much so that I took a break from my WBN marathon to read Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Suzanne Collins does a great job of building a world I can see and feel, and she give her readers characters to care about. I definitely understand why these books took of the way they did.

I really though that Leif Enger's Peace Like a River had a lot of potential. It's a story of a family looking for their older brother who is on the run from the law after murdering two men that attempted to rape his girlfriend and murder his father. A book about family, faith, and honor - that should be for me. Plus the writing is really, really excellent. But then it all played out like a Nicholas Sparks novel, smarmy and over the top. This one was a let down for me.

What is the opposite of a let down? A wonderful surprise? Okay then, Kindred by Octavia Butler was a wonderful surprise. Kindred is a "sci-fi" novel that is also a slave narrative, who knew this could be done? A black woman in the 1970s is inexplicably transported back and forth between her time and 1816. She's forced to live as a slave and the novel brings up all kinds of questions about race and racial identity and history. This book was so good that I read it in one sitting but continued to think about it for days.

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz was another of the WBN books that had been floating around on my TBR pile. I wasn't really familiar with the plot, but that "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize" sticker gets me every time. Then it turns out to be a Central American multigenerational story, so I could do nothing but love it. Oscar Wao is an epic nerd who just wants to get a girl, then there's his mother who just wanted to be loved, and her father who just wanted to be safe, and the turmoil that was the Dominican Republic and Trujillo. The tone of the novel is all hip New Yorker with immigrant and nerd undertones and I loved it, especially the footnotes that provided (much needed) Dominican history. Plus, I'm a nerd reading about a nerd so I loved all of the pop (and maybe not so pop) culture references.

There's another five books conquered. I'm already looking forward to reading next years batch of books. I wonder when they will announce them?

Friday, April 13, 2012

World Book Night: The First Batch

I've been horribly negligent in my blogging, but I promise you that I've been on top of the reading. I've now conquered 22 of the 30 World Book Night choices. That leaves only 8 to go before the 23rd. Let's go ahead and admit it to each other now, I probably won't finish The Stand by then.

So many of these books have been floating around on my TBR pile for years, but the king among them may have been The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Walls tells the story of her transient upbringing with an artist mother and engineer/drunkard father. It is a story of the wonder of stars as Christmas gifts and the pain of childhood hunger and how one reconciles an entire lifetime of not being "normal." I was so intrigued by this story of unconventional parenting and a basically feral childhood. Walls did not disappoint. This book is a perfect example of what a memoir should be, everything may not be exactly true, but it labors under a greater truth of storytelling (and even catharsis).

As I make my way through this list of books I can't help but consider why each one was chosen. What is it about these books that will bring a nonreader into the fold? So far, I'm still questioning the choice of Marilynne Robinson's Home. It is such a lonely book. I guess that gets to the core of reading as a solitary pursuit, but I wonder if that will serve as a bucket of cold water onto a new reader that would be better off easing into a warm bath. Then again, I am not an evangelist for this book. I'd love to hear from someone that will be passing this one out on the 23rd. I did really enjoy Home. The language is so beautiful that I'm not sure how I wouldn't have. However, I didn't love it. The novel is basically a plotless rumination on loneliness, loss, and expectation, but the beauty of the prose distracted me and kept me from feeling any of those things. I was able to engage with it on an intellectual level but not an emotional one.

Then came Wintergirls. I was jolted from an intellectual reading experience into a purely visceral one. Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls is about two friends with complimentary eating disorders who form a pact to be the skinniest girl in school. That's girl - singular. Each girl in a battle to starve the other. The thing about this book is how real it feels. The main character's voice is so authentic. This could be anyone's story. I am constantly amazed by Anderson, she deals with these real life issues so deftly. She is never judgmental, never talks down to her readers. She seems like the kind of person you could go to with your troubles, which must be way so many kids (and parents! and teachers!) continue to turn to her books.

I must be honest, My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult is the book I was least looking forward to. I came at it with my mind already made up, so if it is a book you love, please feel free to disregard my opinion (it is just an opinion after all, and you know what they say about those). My Sister's Keeper is an issues book that nags at me in all the ways a book like Wintergirls doesn't. Many novels deal with issues, it is one of the things that makes us relate to them, but when an issue is used as a plot device I find it bothersome. So, Picoult's novel is about a young girl who want to be medically emancipated from her parents because she is tired of living merely as life support for her terminally ill sister. And it's all just so melodramatic, cliched, manipulative, and predictable.

Oy vey, then there was Blood Work by Michael Connelly. This one's a mystery about a guy hunting down the killer of the woman whose heart he received after a lifesaving transplant. Frankly, you lost me at mystery. I can't handle the violence inherent to the genre. There is a particular scene in this novel that I still cannot get out of my head two months later. Then detective fiction is just so formulaic. Not the book for me, though I see why this made it on the list. Books like this can definitely create readers, it was a pageturner.

That's the end of the first batch. It's really been up and down with these books, which just goes to show you that every reader is different. I'd love to hear from some of you that have read these or may even be distributing them on World Book Night.


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