Wednesday, October 31, 2012

One Writer's Beginnings by Eudora Welty

In this autobiography Eudora Welty writes, obliquely about her growth as a writer. She gives a lot of background--both about her childhood and her family, and writes about what it was like to grow up in the South with parents who were not Southerners. This book was an enjoyable read; it felt personal but not crafted or calculated to evoke a particular literary response.

Black Boy by Richard Wright

This autobiography chronicles Richard Wright's development as a writer--it starts in early childhood, when his only way of shaping and constructing his environment is through action and he vents his frustration and boredom by playing with fire (and setting the family home ablaze). Despite his frustration with his family life and with race relations in the South, and a very haphazard education (he only completes the ninth grade, and most years he only attends part of his classes), he discovers that writing and books offer him a way out of the tension he feels living as an African American man in the U.S. South. In the second half of the book, he moves to Chicago and becomes involved with the Communist Party. The book chronicles both the hope (for racial unity) and disillusion he feels as a result of his involvement with the Party. The story Wright tells is at times moving, and at other times horrific (for example, he lynches a kitten)--and this horror is necessary to his story. Wright's careful attention to the power of language--both at its most lyrical (he uses anaphora to show his childhood self confronting and moving beyond barriers to perception) and most violent (the power of words to threaten and cause violence) make this book essential for any writer, beyond its sociological importance.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan

This book introduces the Roman and Greek counterpart camps to each other, with disastrous effect! The heroes of the last two books (Percy, Frank, Hazel, Jason, Piper, Leo, and Annabeth for good measure) barely escape the Roman camp with their lives on the Argo II and set off for Rome. I loved watching Percy and Jason deal with the challenge of sharing leadership--both are so used to being in charge that their close proximity made for some awkward situations. Riordan's humor and wit continue to shine through in this book. It ends on a cliffhanger, so I'm anxious for the next book to come out (should be House of Hades next fall). I think that these series (this one, the earlier Percy Jackson series, and the Egyptian mythology series) are not only great introductions to mythology, but also have (without being preachy or moralistic) a really great message: the things that make you different may actually be your greatest strengths.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Sea by John Banville

In this book Max Morden confronts his memories of the past as he moves to the village where he summered as a child after his wife's death. The tone is elegaic, but as Max reveals more and more of his memories, we quickly discover that his childhood was not all that it seems. Max must confront questions of responsibility for long-past tragedies as he struggles to live through his latest loss. Winner of the 2005 Booker prize.

The Complete Stories by Zora Neale Hurston

This collection of stories spans a wide range of time (from Hurston's early 30s to just before her death) and includes all her published short fiction and a number of unpublished stories as well (including one, "A Woman in Gaul" which was almost burned after Hurston's death). It also covers a wide range of subjects and genres: some stories draw heavily on the Southern, African-American folklore that Hurston collected professionally, some are set in Harlem, some are fantastical--bordering on magical realism, and some are non-fictional, anthropological pieces. One of the themes that carries throughout the stories is the question of understanding (and language's role in that understanding)--can we really understand each other? how can we use language (or laughter) to both reveal and hide parts of ourselves to protect ourselves from the world? The figure of John (the trickster who came from Africa and outwits Massa despite being enslaved) is key to many of the stories. This collection contains some real gems and demonstrates the range and skill of Hurston's career.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

This book is not Harry Potter. Rowling's skill at managing a large cast of characters and connecting widely diverging elements of the plot is still present, and she presents some scenes really well, with dark humor coming through. Whether recounting the disappointments of a dinner party or a mid-life infatuation with the lead singer of a boy band, she seems especially sharp on both life's little disappointments and the struggle of putting up a good face in spite of them. The story's sharply plotted and entertaining--Rowling takes the occasion of the sudden death of a parish councilor in the small town of Pagford to air the town's hypocrisy and deep-seated divisions. The novel's point-of-view jumps rapidly from character to character, and the many connections between characters from all walks of life (and between the people who live in Pagford village proper and the Fields, a low-income housing development which many Pagfordians are trying to annex to the neighboring town of Yarvil) belie the idea that the Fields are not properly part of Pagford. Rowling also investigates the motivations of charity and social work (many characters who are professionally involved with helping the poor ignore huge problems within their own families). The book defiantly sets itself apart from the Harry Potter series with plenty of drug use, sex, violence, and rough language. This roughness does not, in and of itself, make the book a bad book (although it does make it inappropriate for many of Rowling's younger readers). Still, my biggest disappointment with this book is that it has lost the magic that imbued the Harry Potter books. I'm not talking about actual magic here, obviously, but the magic of a story with epic scope--even if the Harry Potter books didn't always live up to their potential, they started with the idea that we can be our best selves; The Casual Vacancy proposes that, despite our best intentions, we rarely escape our worst selves.

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

This book is beautifully written; it requires the reader to relax into the narrative--looking for immediate answers and immediate clarity as to how everything fits in only frustrated me. I really enjoyed following the development of the characters and the sense of place (mostly Bombay in the 1970s, with a diversion into China)--the plot was secondary to me. Shortlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Fistful of Collars by Spencer Quinn

In this book Chet and Bernie's easy, well-paying job of keeping an eye on a wild movie star suddenly gets more pressing and difficult when they start finding bodies in the wake of his handlers and their investigation. At the same time their personal life gets much more difficult as Bernie and Suzie begin to navigate a long-distance relationship and Leda (Bernie's ex-wife) is star struck. The story--which involves delving into the movie star's past and solving a cold case which involves city government corruption--is good, and, as usual, Quinn's characterization of Chet shines. An entertaining addition to the series.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

American Photographs by Walker Evans

This volume reproduces the exhibit catalogue for Walker Evans's 1938 one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, including a descriptive essay by Lincoln Kirstein. The photographs are gorgeous and really display a lovely variety of American life and culture, from rural to urban (some of the pictures are repeated in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men). The photographs are magnificent and the collection is well-worth looking into for anyone interested in American history or American photography.

The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter by Katherine Anne Porter

These stories are like icebergs: they're deeper than they first appear on the surface. For example, "Old Mortality" seems like a bildungsroman about Miranda growing up, but as we look deeper at the stories she's told, we see the destructive way the family has used romance and fiction to replace history and lived experience: stories about Aunt Amy (a tragic belle figure who died young) crowd out memories of the Civil War. I also really enjoyed "Noon Wine"--when the mysterious hired hand's past catches up with him, Mr. Thompson realizes both the extent to which he can be moved to act and the extent to which his motivations may be mistrusted by his community. Many of the stories feature great character development--a strong collection.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Red, White, and Blood by Christopher Farnsworth

This book is easily the best so far in the President's Vampire series. Although the name of the villain (the Boogeyman) is laughable, his murders are not. At times the descriptions in the book are over the top, but the story was well-plotted and kept me guessing at every turn (especially the last, which sets up a great starting point for the next volume in the series). I thought the campaign trail was a great place to set the series of murders and the book balanced introducing a new villain with the return of old foes nicely. I listened to the audiobook version of this title, and the narrator did a nice job with different voices for the characters.

The Spindlers by Lauren Oliver

What this book lacks in originality, it makes up for in heart. The story of a child protagonist traveling to a secret, underground world filled with fantastical creatures is nothing new (see, for example, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Un Lun Dun, and Neverwhere), but Oliver has populated her world with memorable creatures (for example, the Spindlers themselves--soul-stealing creatures that seem like spiders) and does a beautiful job capturing the anxieties and fears of childhood (do my parents care? why is my little brother such a bother? does my beloved babysitter who went away to college still remember me?). This book would be a delight to read out loud to small children.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

This book is about the improbable romance between the son of a dissenting minister and an Australian heiress who invests in a glass factory. Oscar Hopkins believes in gambling of a certain type--but won't allow himself to profit from it--at a very young age. Indeed, he uses a game of chance to determine that his father is incorrect on certain religious tenets and therefore becomes an Anglican minister. Lucinda Leplastrier is also a gambler of a sort--she invests half of her inheritance in a glass factory despite no background in the industry. They meet while traveling from England to Australia, and together concoct a plan to construct a glass church in the heart of the Outback. I really enjoyed this book--I thought the character development was superb--both Oscar and Lucinda are quirky, flawed individuals. Despite the improbabilities of the plot, Carey has constructed two characters who feel human. Winner of the 1988 Booker Prize.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

This book tells the intertwining stories of Sai, an orphan, who lives with her grandfather, a retired judge, in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains and Biju, the son of their cook, who is trying to make it as an illegal immigrant in the restaurants of New York City. There are beautiful scenes here, and the book is very attentive to the problems of colonialism, but the plot was a little meandering for my tastes--it took a long time for me to figure out quite where it was going. Winner of the Booker Prize, 2006.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell

This book portrays the extreme poverty of the Lester family in a story that might be compared to a train wreck: you know you shouldn't be looking (and in this case laughing), but you can't look away either. The book relies neither on sentimentality nor on a proletarian call to action, but rather by turning the readers' reactions back on them: instead of a moral or a plan, Caldwell interrogates why we respond to this family with humor, contempt, and perhaps pity. The failure of the land to produce crops is equated with the family's inability to reproduce within social norms (the Lesters have had seventeen children, but only two still live at home, for example, and the ones who have left want nothing to do with the family). While Jeeter Lester (the head of the family) instinctively knows that his fate is tied to the land and that he wants no part of industrialization (symbolized by the possibility of a mill job in Augusta), the family is completely unable to cope with modernity: they treat their new car as if it were almost human--and in so doing manage to almost destroy it in a few short days. Finally, this book is about rural poverty in the South in the same way that Moby Dick is about whales--certainly it's a relevant topic, but Tobacco Road raises bigger and more pressing questions: What does it mean to be human? and What are the costs of living in a society that allows some of its members to become so abject?

The Truth by Terry Pratchett

This book spoofs the publishing industry as Ankh-Morpork gets its first newspaper just as the Watch uncovers a plot to unseat the Patrician. This book was definitely one of the more humorous and well-conceived entries in the Discworld series: it works! The plot hangs clearly together and I found the humor especially well done (Gaspode, the talking dog, is one of the newspaper's first sources, but he speaks to the newspaper anonymously as Deep Bone, for example).