Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Spot of Bother - Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon is truly a jack of all trades, having spent his life doing an assortment of jobs, but he always retained a rather creative outlet.  He started his literary career with children's books, many of which he illustrated himself.  He has also published a poetry collection and works on screenplays.  While he does have this quite impressive writing background, I never would have heard of him had it not been for the 2003 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.  The book received much praise and numerous awards, all which it well deserved.  A mystery, the book is from the point of view of a 15 year old boy with something akin to autism.  Haddon never says what the boy has, but the description points to autism/aspergers.  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a mystery, but it's certainly not genre-fiction.  Christopher, our hero/detective, discovers the body of his neighbor's dog and decides to investigate the murder of the pooch.  During this investigation, Christopher also goes on a search for his supposedly dead mother.  I found different and beautifully done, so when I saw Haddon had published another novel, I snagged.  A Spot of Bother (2006) continues with a story told through someone with mental issues and focuses strongly on the family unit.  It's horribly depressing, yet laughingly so.  I suppose that's life though, you don't know if you should laugh or cry, or kill yourself.

The small chapters of the book are snapshots into various family members' lives.  The story revolves around and starts with George, the father.  George is an older man.  He lives with his wife, Jean.  His two children, Jamie & Katie are grown.  He has a grandson, Jacob.  And I should mention he's crazy as a loon.  Old age and retirement have made in a first-class crazy person.  A hypochondriac who will convince the reader that maybe s/he should get that skin lesion checked out.  That's how it starts; George see this skin spot/lesion and becomes convinced it's cancer.  This slowly makes him insane.  At one point, he rocks on the floor on all fours moo-ing like a cow to keep calm.  He manages to swallow his panic and go to a doctor where is told it's just eczema and is given a steroid cream.  This helps briefly.  Later, George begins to medicate and calm himself with codeine, Valium, and wine.

Jean is a little bit oblivious to her husband's insanity.  She is not home often as she is having an affair with George's former colleague, David.  (An affair the George learns about by watching it happen.  The description of two older people engaged in sex is not exactly romantic.)  Jean is a busybody who needs someone to take care of, and as she realizes her husband isn't well, she begins to feel better about herself.  She is also a guilt-tripping controlling mom.  She is less than pleased about her daughter's upcoming wedding.  And she's completely concerned with what people with think if her son shows up to the wedding with his boyfriend.  She was not a likeable character for me, but she was a very believable one.

Katie, a single-mother, has some serious anger issues.  She's also a bit like her mother and much concerned with appearances.  That said, she thinks she is too good for Ray, a commoner (and a belief held by her parents), but he takes care of her and Jacob and marrying him will truly piss her mom off.  Katie has had a string of men who are "perfect" as far as appearances go.  They are well-read, well-educated, respectably employed at a respectable job, muscled, tan, beautiful to look at.  And generally sorry lots.  That pretty much describes her first husband and Jacob's father.  Her and Ray are a bizarre fit.  The wedding gets called off.  She panics because she is afraid he'll toss her out.  An all around good guy, Ray assures her he won't, that they'll figure it out, but he cares about her and Jacob too much to just toss them on the street.

Jamie has created a new life away from his family.  But when he hears about the wedding, his life falls apart.  His boyfriend, Tony, wants to come.  Tony has never been introduced to Jamie's family and Jamie has never really come out to his family (they know, but they pretend otherwise).  Tony leaves Jamie because he doesn't think Jamie loves him, at least he doesn't love him enough to take him home.  (And we all know that's the test of any relationship.)  Jamie falls apart.  The problems in his life make it difficult for him to give his attention to his father's crazy or his sister's looney or his mother's wtf moments.

So what happens?  Does George go completely nuts?  Does he ever tell Jean he knows about the affair?  Does the affair stop?  Does the wedding happen?  Does George attack David at the wedding?  (Okay, that might give a bit away.)  Are there suicide attempts?  Does Tony come back?  Does Jamie get a new man?  Is the person at the bed/breakfast that Jamie's mother puts him in after doing research to see what "his kind" would like a man to woman tranny?  Does Katie get involved with her ex?  Is there a horrible sex scene between two men that starts off hot and heavy and ends with food poisoning?  (Yes.  I will answer that one. Yes.)  Does George become better or worse?  Does his marriage to Jean survive or does she leave him?

It's a good book and a rather quick read.  The fragmented sections of snippets makes it a very speedy read that is easy to follow.  Haddon doesn't get all flowery and descriptive, he keeps his story nicely on track.  This whole family is spiraling out of control independent of each other.  The story, the spot of bother, is what happens when their spiraling into each other.  Can they survive it?  Independently and as a family.

(The book was made into a French film for those interested.  Une Petite Zone de Turbulences

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Beatrice and Virgil - Yann Martel

Some of you may recall my frantic childlike behavior when I loaned Life of Pi to a pretty eyed boy who promptly left it in Ohio.  I demanded the book be returned.  My copy.  I didn't want a new one, I wanted my copy.  The one that still smells like train rides in England and Scottish rain.  The boy shook his head but made arrangements to have my copy returned.   (I should be thankful the book wasn't left on the plane but rather with family, making it returnable.) I was happy again.  Deemed crazy, but happy all the same.  Lesson: don't mess with a bookslut and her books.

Well, this pretty eyed boy recalled my insane obsession with my copy of Life of Pi and gifted me with Martel's latest novel on my birthday.  (This thoughtful gift earned some serious brownie points.)  I didn't throw myself into Beatrice and Virgil as soon as receiving it because I'd just finished The Elephant Keeper (a book about animals that I didn't enjoy...  I didn't want to taint my Martel experience by having that in my head...)

I finished this extremely small novel the other day but have been relatively torn as to how to review it.  I should start by mentioning that Life of Pi is one of my favorite novels of all times.  The idea that people embrace fiction better than fact reminds me of "May's Lion," a wonderful short story about the death of a bobcat.  I found Life of Pi to be magic, tragic, and all around quite lovely.  A lot of the elements that resounded so strongly with me in that novel show up in Beatrice and Virgil.  Published in 2010, Beatrice and Virgil has received some mixed reviews.  In fact, should you google certain keywords, you may find a blog entry titled: "Why Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil is the worst book of the decade."  Harsh, n'est-ce pas?  (Actually, the blogger doesn't much seem to understand the novel and thus has unfounded criticisms.)  I can assure you that Martel's work isn't the worst of the decade, but I must also tell you that not all of you would enjoy it.  It takes a special type of reader to appreciate and enjoy what Martel does with this novel.  Stylistically, if you liked Dewitt's The Last Samurai, you'll probably be able to appreciate the artistic-ness of this novel.  Martel crafts his words like a painting and the novel is visually effective.  I think it's important to view writing as art, both in writing it and in reading it.

"Henry had written a novel because there was a hole in him that needed filling, a question that needed answering, a patch of canvas that needed painting - that blend of anxiety, curiosity and joy that is at the origin of art - and he had filled the hole, answered the question, splashed colour on the canvas, all done for himself, because he had to.  Then complete strangers told him that this book had filled a hole in them, had answered a question, had brought colour to their lives."  (And color this book will bring to your lives, fellow booksluts, trust me.)

The novel is about Henry, a novelist not so far removed from Martel himself.  (The parallels between Martel and his protagonist were almost a little too gimmicky for me, but I quickly suspended my issues with that and fell into the book.)  Author of a couple of books, he'd found some fame with his second novel (about animals) and was trying to get someone to pick up his third work,  novel/essay flipbook about the Holocaust.  Martel Henry does a splendid job of explaining how the literary world views the Holocaust and how poetic license isn't really allowed on that issue.

"Other events in history, including horrifying ones, had been treated by artists, and for the greater good.  To take just three well-known instances of artful witness: Orwell with Animal Farm, Camus with The Plague, Picasso with Guernica.  In each case the artist had taken a vast, sprawling tragedy, had found its heart, and had represented it in a nonliteral and compact way.  The unwieldy encumbrance of history was reduced and packed into a suitcase.  Art as a suitcase, light, portable, essential - was such a treatment not possible, indeed, was it not necessary, with the greatest tragedy of the European Jews?"

Martel is using Henry to explain/justify what he does with the Holocaust in this novel.  It's an interesting tactic that I didn't like at first, but I ultimately came to understand the necessity for the work as a whole.  Henry's essay/novel flipbook is ripped apart at a luncheon with an editor.  The description of the luncheon being a wedding party that's actually a firing squad will ring true with anybody who has ever had an editor reject their work.  But short story made long, Henry's book is rejected, Henry is broken and ultimately quits writing.  He travels with his wife to an unnamed city where he dabbles in other forms of art (music, acting, etc).  Information about Henry's life outside of the novel/essay he'd written and his work with the taxidermist is scant.  We know he and his wife adopt a dog and a cat.  (We know what ultimately happens to this pair.)  We know he has a son.  We know his wife has a work visa while he just pretty much farts around.  But that part of his life isn't essential to what Martel is doing; the taxidermist and Beatrice and Virgil are.

The taxidermist is also named Henry.  A bit confusing but Martel is trying to connect the two Henry's in the reader's mind.  He doesn't want a disconnect because they are, in many ways, the same person.  The taxidermist is writing a play about the Holocaust.  He never says that's what it is about, but it very much indeed is.  One criticism I have is that Martel is a bit too heavy-handed in making sure his reader knows that the play is about the Holocaust.  I do love the idea that the play takes place in a land called "Shirt" and a shirt that is striped.  I love Beatrice and Virgil.  I love the descriptions of them. 

The taxidermist, Henry, has a slew of dead animals in his taxidermy shop that have been mounted (he explains that it's not called stuffed anymore) and Beatrice and Virgil are a donkey and a howler monkey.

A bit about the shop.  Okapi Taxidermy is the only business on the street it is on, which sets the stage for privacy and secrecy.  Henry, the writer, 's dog doesn't like the place, which is a bit foreshadowing of things to come.  It should be noted, it's not the dead animals that bother the dog.  But dead animals there are a plenty.  "Crammed upon these shelves, each and every one, without any gaps, were animals of all sizes and species, furred and feathered, spotted and scaled, predator and prey."  The description of the shop continues, listing animals and colors that the reader can vividly see.  Later, the writer Henry has the taxidermist write something about taxidermy.  It starts:  "The animal is lost from us, has been taken out of us." and launches into details concerning the profession.  "I wanted to see if something could be saved once the irreparable had been down.  That is why I became a taxidermist: to bear witness."

Beautiful.  "To bear witness."  Sound familiar?  "artful witness."  "bear witness."

The novel itself is a mixture of Henry's life and interactions with the taxidermist, and the taxidermist's play about Beatrice and Virgil.  (Yes, Dante's Inferno explains the name choice.)  The play itself (in the segments provided) is very Waiting for Godot.  Beatrice and Virgil do nothing but talk, usually about how they're going to talk about what they've witnessed and been through, something they ultimately decide to call The Horrors.  The reader is never given the whole play and what the reader is given is what Henry is given, which is disjointed and incomplete.  It works.  It works quite well.

The book will leave you hollow, and you'll never look at a pear the same way.  I don't want to spoil this book because it is so artfully crafted that those who do pick it up should be rewarded by Martel's unfolding of events, not mine.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Sweet-Shop Owner - Graham Swift

I love Graham Swift.  He is quite possibly my favorite (living) English author.  Waterland ranks in my top ten all-time favorites and for a bookslut, that says a lot.  I picked up a copy of his first novel, The Sweet-Shop Owner, when I was at a used bookstore.  It's my favorite kind of used book - meaning that it doesn't look like it was ever read.  While it is unfortunate that it wasn't read because of its brilliance and fantastic writing, I loved paying used prices for new condition books.  Anyway, I digress.

As previously mentioned, The Sweet-Shop Owner is Graham's first novel.  Published in 1980, it was highly praised and started the long amazing career for the English novelist who won the Booker Prize in '96.  Swift's first novel shows how he mastered the tools of genius writing early in his career, and the novel is everything I look for in a good book; each word carefully chosen, each character artfully depicted, and each heartbreak/victory/failure of resonating quality.  After the disappointing The Elephant Keeper, it was nice to pick up another English novel and be swept away.

The novel centers around Willy Chapman, the sweet-shop owner, and blends the past with the present to create the ordinary life of an ordinary man.  But things aren't all as they seem.  The reader is introduced to his dead wife - a beautiful strange creature who, though dead, is a very living character.  Willy's daughter also is a very present character even though she doesn't appear physically all that much.

It is a story of family, money, and the things we do for love.  It is also a story of letting go and accepting the hand you've been dealt.  I'm not going to lie; the story is heartbreaking and I learned to hate the women that Willy loved with all his being, but if you're looking for a great story, a story that is tightly woven by a true literary master, then pick up any Swift novel.  Better yet, pick up this one.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Elephant Keeper - Christopher Nicholson

"The Elephant Keeper is the best book I've read in the past twenty years or so." - Nikki Giovanni

Dear Nikki,

You clearly don't read many books.


The Bookslut.

I didn't purchase this book because of Giovanni's blurb or the pretty colors of the cover (okay, maybe the colors did factor in) - it was an impulse buy in a very sad Borders that had been stripped done to barely nothing.  And I'm a sucker for books about animals.  I should have spent my money on something else.

The author, Christopher Nicholson is a radio documentary producer who worked for BBC and many of the shows he produced dealt with the connections/bonds between animals and humans so it is not surprising that his novel focuses around such a bond.  How he develops the bond between human and animal is fantastically done and the writing is quite beautiful, but the novel reaches a point where I was left going "oh no, honey," which tends to my response when a book takes a turn or jumps the track and the editor didn't put things back on track before print.  Sigh.

Set in England in the 1770s, The Elephant Keeper is about Tom Page, a man who followed his father's footsteps into a stable as a groomsman and later as the elephant keeper.  When his employer decided to acquire two young elephants, Tom could barely contain his excitement.  As the male and female elephants grew, Tom created a bond with the two of them that went beyond any connection he'd had with horses, family, or other people.  This "feeling each other out" period of the bonding process is the best of the book.

Due to expenses, Tom's employer has to get rid of one of the elephants and Tom suggests he keep the more docile female and sell the less predictable male.  Tom's relationship with the elephant he calls Jenny takes a weird turn as he begins to have conversations with her, forsakes his family and his "true" love for her, and begins to have sexual fantasies about her.  This single obsession ruins what had been a very interesting book about developing bonds between animal and keeper set against a backdrop of the social hierarchy of England.  (There are some fantastic parallels between Tom and Jenny - isn't Tom but a "pet" of his employer's son?)

I think Nicholson is channeling a bit of Martel is this work, but he fails horribly.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Christopher Moore - Lamb, the Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal

“Nobody’s perfect… Well, there was this one guy, but we killed him.”

An only child, Christopher Moore spent much of his childhood in Ohio entertaining himself with books and his imagination; it paid off – big time. With titles like You Suck: A Love Story and Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings, his books (and imagination) have been entertaining readers since the early ‘90s. When I saw Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (2002) at a local used bookstore, I had to pick it up.

Any book dealing with a fictional account of the life of Jesus (this is not an opportunity to bash the Bible as fiction) has to be careful. You don’t want to piss your readers off. You don’t want to alienate your publisher. And you certainly don’t want to anger the Big Guy. Moore tackles the subject matter with grace, wit, humility, and a chuckle that you just cannot resist.

The afterword opens with a Bible verse, John 21:25:

“And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written everyone, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.”

Moore then makes it very clear that the novel is a made-up story, born in his imagination, based on historical information and the gospels (both those found in the Bible and those the Catholics opted not to include) and passion plays, etc. – but it’s fiction and Moore hopes it doesn’t change anyone’s religious views. “This story is not and never was meant to challenge anyone’s faith; however, if one’s faith can be shaken by stories in a humorous novel, one may have a bit more praying to do.” Preach on, Moore. Preach on.

The story itself covers the “lost” years of Jesus. Those of you familiar with the New Testament know there is a serious gap in the life of Jesus. There is only one scene in the Bible after his birth and before he begins his ministries in his thirties. And that scene is only in Luke. This is a story that has been begging to have its day.
Lamb is told through the eyes and voice of Levi, who is called Biff. Biff has been resurrected to tell the story of Jesus. “By the way, his name was Joshua. Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Yeshua, which is Joshua. Christ is not a last name. It’s the Greek for messiah, a Hebrew word meaning anointed. I have no idea what the “H” in Jesus H. Christ stood for. It’s one of the many things I should have asked him.”

And so the reader falls in love with Biff, Christ’s childhood friend who is rude, mouthy, obnoxious, horny as hell, and the best friend a guy could have. Mary Magdalene makes an appearance as Maggie. Maggie loves both boys, but Joshua is very special. The boys leave when Maggie announces her pending nuptials. Unlike some portrayals, Maggie is not a whore.

The story takes Josh and Biff from killing and resurrecting lizards to the far East where they sought the three wise men that made an appearance at Christ’s birth. Biff constantly quotes from books of the Old Testament that do not exist – like Amphibians. Biff also “creates” sarcasm and gets a bit annoyed with Josh masters it. They learn kung fu and what Buddhism really means. Biff gets to tackle the Karma Sutra with quite a few women. There are great discussions about bacon where Josh determines that God doesn’t really care about what you eat. Whenever Josh says something that contradicts the Torah and Jewish ways, Biff calls him on. Josh replies “Bacon.” Biblical miracles appear and some of the most memorable sermons are shown at the “composing” stage. You have to own and respect a sense of humor to appreciate this book. Trust me, it’s a rollicking good read.

I’m a Christian so I knew how the story would have to end, but I wasn’t expecting the amount of emotion Moore was able to apply to this comedic book when it came to the crucifixion. The bond between Biff and Josh is great, so great that Biff tries to thwart Josh’s plan to sacrifice himself. Biff plots with the other disciples and the women who followed them. He’d been given a poison in China that makes one appear dead. He plotted a way to get Josh to drink the poison – he had the women soak the sponge in the poison and attempt to give it to Josh while on the cross. It doesn’t work and Moore captures serious emotion when Biff watches Christ die. Biff kills Judas. And then himself. So he missed the resurrection.  (Luckily the hotel the angel sequestered him in had the Bible and he was able to hide in the bathroom and read the gospels.)

After Biff finishes his gospel, the angel tells him that he and Maggie can have a life in the present day. And Maggie reveals one great secret:

“By the way, it was Hallowed,” she said.

“What was Hallowed?”

“The H. His middle name. It was Hallowed. It’s a family name, remember, ‘Our father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.”

“Damn, I would have guessed Harvey,” Biff said.

And so the novel ends.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak

"First the colors.
Then the humans.
That's usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.
           You are going to die."

And so Markus Zusak's novel, The Book Thief, begins.  Told from Death's point of view, The Book Thief, is the story of Liesel Meminger and her encounters with Death in war-torn Germany.  As Death explains in the prologue, "It's just a small story really, about, among other things: A girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery."

But it's not really a small story at all.  Well over 500 pages, The Book Thief, is a book those who love to read will love to read.  Since these are Death's words and it's WWII, it's not a stretch for the reader to know and understand that dying will litter the pages.  What the reader may not expect is the tightness of the threat and the burning of the eyes as the story unfolds.  And, should the reader expect tears, s/he may not expect laughing through them.  Well deserving of the numerous awards lavished upon it, this novel grabs you and holds until the last page and long after - leaving you reeling.  And, if you're like me, when you read the last page, you read those last words one more time before closing the book, pulling it to you, and closing your eyes.  And you see colors.  And words.  And know you've read something great.  And that for a brief moment, you were apart of it.

The novel opens with Liesel on a train with her mother and brother.  She is nine and her brother is dead.  The dead brother is how she first encounters Death.  The dead brother also results in her first theft of a book.  She steals The Gravedigger's Handbook.  She is taken from her mother and left with Rosa and Hans Hubermann, her foster parents.  This is due to her mother's involvement in communism.    Rosa is gruff and often violent with the child.  Hans is soft and gentle.  Liesel opens herself up to him quickly.  In the dead of night, when the world is sleeping, he teaches her to read the book she'd stolen.

Hans is trying to gain acceptance into "the party."  This is hard because he is known as a "Jew lover" because he'd painted over the vile words some placed on a Jewish shopkeeper's door.  The party will not accept him.  Hans finally gets accepted.  But it is as a means of punishment.  When the Jews are marched through the town, he hands one bread.  He is beaten for this.  And then sent off to fight for Hitler.  (A man he loathes.  A hatred he must swallow for his family's safety.)  He is a painter.  And an accordion player.  The accordion is ultimately what brings the Jewish fist fighter to their home for refuge.  A refuge they willingly give.

Rosa, for all her harshness, is to be admired.  She does not question her husband when Max shows up for safety.  She feels for Liesel when Liesel keeps writing her mother, who will never answer her.  And when Hans is sent to fight a war that isn't his, she clutches his accordion to her chest - bruising her heart with her love.  It may be tough love, but it's strong love.

Liesel's best friend is Rudy - a beautiful blond haired boy who wants to be Jesse Jackson.  Once, he paints himself black and runs through the town.  Hitler wants him.  His father refuses.  For this, his father is sent off to join the war.  Liesel loves him as children love.  Rudy grows to hate Hitler.  The two encounter a downed plane with a dead American inside.  (This is the second time Death encounters Liesel.)  The young boy places a stuffed bear next to the soldier - a man society screams is an enemy.  Death with take Rudy as well.  Death will take everyone.  Liesel finally gives Rudy the kiss he'd been begging for since meeting her when he is cold and dead.  Your heart will break.

Liesel steals books.  The Grave-digger's Handbook is but her first.  Her other comes from a Jewish bookburning.  It is wet and hot when she hides it against her chest.  It burns her.  But she reads it.  She then steals from the mayor's wife's library.  But it isn't stealing.  The white-haired woman opens the library for the girl.  She leaves her notes.  Liesel gives her life.  (And when her entire home is destroyed, Liesel finds solace and refuge in her home.)

When Max shows up, Liesel is uncertain of him.  He is a "Jew."  But she begins to love him.  He is the one secret she keeps from Rudy.  He is the one secret that tightly links the small family.  He writes her books.  When the family hides in bomb shelters, he comes out to see the stars.  When it snows, she brings the snow to the basement so they can build a snowman.  They live as best they can.  He writes her a book.  He paints the pages of Mein Kampf.  The book of hate was used to hide a key.  Once safe, Max paints the pages white and writes over it with his own story.  After Max leaves (he must - it is no longer safe), he leaves the book with Rosa to give to Liesel.

When the Jews are marched through town, Liesel watches for one Jew.  She does not hide from him or from her connection with him.  She runs to him, calling his name.  She pays for this.

Liesel begins to write her own story.  When the town is bombed and her entire street (and family) destroy, Death returns.  Liesel is spared, but she leaves her book in the rubble.  Death steals it.  It is only fitting.  Death does not see Liesel again until years later when he comes to get her.  She sits up to meet him.

The novel ends:

"A last note from your narrator:  I am haunted by humans."

This novel is fantastic.  And one any lover of words, life and love must read.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

W. Somerset Maugham - The Razor's Edge

There’s a story behind this review and, as all stories must, it involves a pretty eyed boy and a girl who thought she knew everything. The short version is thus: your bookslut had never heard of William Somerset Maugham – a man who just happened to be a pretty eyed boy’s favorite author. For Christmas, I received two novels by W. Somerset Maugham: The Razor’s Edge and The Magician. It makes my heart happy when someone I love points me in the direction of a book like this – a book I can see, taste, smell – a book I can see myself in. Maybe it’s the influence of a pretty eyed boy or maybe it’s that sensation I get when I FEEL the words of a book, but The Razor’s Edge is on my “special” shelf.

William Somerset Maugham was one of the most popular authors of the 1930s and it escapes me as to how I’d never come across his name or his works. I guess when you turn your back on the canon and the works of dead white guys, you miss out. A novelist, playwright, and short story writer, Maugham’s body of work is quite extensive. The Razor’s Edge (1944) was one of his last major works and has a bit of a Gatsby-like quality to it.

It is the story of Larry Darrell, a World War I veteran on a search for self, meaning, and God. While the story is his, it’s not. I felt that so much of the life in this story is found in the women that love and are loved by Larry – Isabel Maturin and Sophie Macdonald. (I saw myself in Sophie in ways that made me uncomfortable.) Perhaps the most memorable character is Elliott Templeton – a snobby art dealer who doesn’t quite understand that he’s a snob. Elliott is the narrator’s tie-in with the rest of the odd bunch that the story revolves around.

The story opens with a bit of an explanation and is billed as a “true account.” Maugham is the narrator and an active participant in the actions. The only time he is referred to by name (at least that I recall) is when Larry refers to him as “Mr. M”. I usually take issue with books about authors and as I read the first chapter, my heart was already turning against this work. But I quickly abandoned any prejudice I had and fell head over heels.

A brief summary will tell you that Isabel, Elliott’s niece, is engaged to Larry. Sophie is one of their friends, as is Gray. Money, prestige, power and privilege soak the pages of the novel and their social circle. But Larry, after watching a man die during the war, is removed. He wants to find salvation. He wants to find God so he can understand God. And he realizes the path to God isn’t paved in money and social standing. Isabel never quite understand that, and when Larry decides to travel on his quest for self, she marries Gray – a man accustomed to the finer things in life and a man who can afford her rich taste. Sophie appears early on as a quiet girl at a dinner table. She doesn’t show up again until Paris at a seedy bar where she’s drunk, doped up, and fucking away her troubles. She’d lost her husband and child and her search for self resulted in burying herself and her memories. Her eyes were only green and alive when doped up, as the dear author noticed. At this point, Gray has lost all his money after the crash and the family is living off of Elliott’s generosity in Paris. Larry is visiting. Larry decides to marry Sophie. To save her. Sophie bails on the arrangement and later tells our narrator: “Darling, when it came to the point, I couldn’t see myself being Mary Magdalen to his Jesus Christ. No, sir.” Of course, things aren’t nearly that simple as Isabel is at the core of her decision to walk, no, run away from Larry. And it’s jealousy that prompts Isabel’s actions. The female jealousy wears a fancier coat than that of jealous of men which bears arms, but it cuts just as sure and quick in the end. The narrator tells her she’ll end up with her throat cut. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” she grinned. “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

There are parts of the novel I would cut completely. I realize that the parts I’d cut are really what the story is supposed to be about, but there is so much more lurking in the pages for me to focus my energies on Larry and his search for God. What Maugham says about love and money and society far outweigh any faith points for me. I also think the story could have been stronger if presented differently; parts of the story seem misplaced and the narrator apologizes for such placement and tries to explain as he is telling the story. This was jarring and disruptive. That said, it was intentionally jarring and disruptive. There’s not a mark in this book that wasn’t thoughtfully considered and purposely placed. Books like this, structured like this, fleshed out like this, are works of art. Books like this are why I don’t read genre fiction often. Books like this are what make me a booksnob.  I don't have to like what he did - but I sure as hell respect it.

I could write much more about the story, the settings, the cast of characters, and the use of words, but I could never do it justice. Let me just say that Maugham is a man I have added to my list of writers I want to have a pint with and just listen to the stories they tell.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Robert Jordan - From the Two Rivers

This bookslut seldom ventures into the realm of genre fiction, but she made an exception for a friend.  For years, this particular friend has been pushing The Wheel of Time series on me like a drug dealer pushes crack.  When I found From the Two Rivers on the dollar table at a local used bookstore, I had to buy it.

Fans of the series probably do not recognize this title.  The reason for this is simple; I purchased the illustrated part one of The Eye of the World.  Marketing strategy for young adults resulted in the novels being split into parts.  Don't despair; I have purchased the second part of book one to ensure I give Jordan an honest chance.

Initially, I didn't care for the book.  I didn't hate it; I was quite indifferent.  (Which is a horrible thing for a reader.  To have a book that results in NOTHING from you is quite horrible.)  But I stuck with it, and I must admit to being pleased I did.  Jordan needed a better editor and at times I found his writing to be a bit too formulaic, but the meat of the story is worth the effort.

The story is tailored to young adults - as evidenced by both the characters and the writing style.  Perhaps I'd have been more quickly captivated as a child, but the 28 year old in me had a very difficult time relating to and/or caring for the characters.  I found Egwene a whiny, self-important little brat.  While I like the character of Mat and his boyish pranks, it just didn't mesh the way I think Jordan had hoped it would.  (I'm sure many people think it meshed just fine.)  Rand reminded me of Harry Potter.  (Yes, I know Rand existed long before sweet 'Arry, but in my reading chronology, Potter was first.)  There are a lot of similarities in Rand and Harry and it would be interesting to see if those comparisons continue.  I'd bet money on Rowling having read Jordan's series.  (No, I'm not saying she copied him in any way, but reading is what develops writers and some things you read are bound to stick.)  Perrin isn't all that developed in part one of the first book.  But what Jordan has done with him is make a character I want to know more about.  There's a lot of foreshadowing with Perrin and Jordan makes it clear he isn't just filler.  I'm eager to know how Perrin fits in - he is my favorite.  Nynaeve, the Wisdom, was artfully developed and as the book progressed, I found myself liking her more and more.  There's a nervous condition in her due to her age and power, and I like where that is going.  Moiraine is a fantastic character and I was drawn to her (and Lan) more than the children.  Again, I think it's due to the age at which I'm first reading this.

The Gleeman is also a huge favorite of mine.  I've always been drawn to the trickster/story-teller characters and they abound in the books I tend to favor.  The man clearly knows more than he lets on and I want to know what secrets he hides beneath his colorful cloak.

The use of the animals is fantastic.  The horses, the wolves, the ravens...  I think Robert shined the most in his brief discussions of them.  My favorite part of this section was when Perrin and Egwene meet Elyas and his wolves.  There's beautiful writing here, especially when Elyas is explaining the relationship between wolves and humans and how memory works.

"Wolves remember things differently from the way people do...  Every wolf remembers the history of all the wolves, or at least the shape of it.  Like I said, it can't be put into words very well.  They remember running down prey side-by-side with men, but it was so long ago that it's more like a shadow of a shadow than a memory."

There is some quite lovely writing (and a bunch of stuff that should have been cut).  I will read the second half of the first novel, that I can promise - I cannot promise, however, that I will complete the series.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Mishna Wolff - I'm Down

This review has been a long time coming.  Law school gets in the way of fun things.  My apologies.  Of all the books of 2010 (which weren't nearly as many as I would have liked), I'd recommend I'm Down the most.  Well, I'm Down and God of the Animals

Mishna Wolff's childhood memoir is brilliant.  If you've ever felt like you didn't belong and were the black white sheep of your family, this memoir is for you.  Wolff is white, but she grew up in a poor black neighborhood with her father - a man who really believed he was black.

"I am white.  My parents, both white.  My sister had the same mother and father as me - all of us completely white.  White Americans of European ancestry.  White, white, white, white, white, white, white, white.  I think it's important to make this clear, because when I describe my childhood to people: the years of moving from one black Baptist church to the next, the all-black basketball teams, the hours having my hair painfully braided into cornrows, of their response is, 'So... who in your family was black?'  No one.  All white."

And so her memoir opens.  She then describes her father as "strutt[ing] around with a short perm, a Cosby-esqe sweater, gold chains, and a Kangol - telling jokes like Redd Foxx, and giving advice like Jesse Jackson.  He walked like a black man, he talked like a black man, and he played sports like a black man.  You couldn't tell my father he was white.  Believe me, I tried.  It wasn't an identity crisis; it's who he was."

Her childhood story will make you laugh out loud.  Seriously.  You will lol all over yourself - if you don't, you don't know what it's like to grow up with a family you don't understand and have difficulty relating to.  And that's what the memoir really is about - family.  It would be easy to sell it as a take on race, but it isn't.  It's a novel about a father and daughter and how they relate with each other and the bonds that hold them together and the moments that threaten to rip them apart.

But it is America and race always has been and unfortunately, at least for my lifetime, always will be an issue.  (People have difficulty with those that are "different" - black, white, rich, poor.)  And while the racial issues are quite poignant and very important in understanding some of the racial dynamics that still exist in the states, the memoir is not weighted with it.  For me, it's not a black/white story.  And that is what makes Wolff an amazing writer - that and her killer instinct when it comes to all things funny.

White... Black... Purple... Red...  I don't care what "color" you are - this book is one we all can relate to.  Her story is one that, while quite unique, has echoes of all our childhoods.  Pick it up.  Enjoy.  It's not all rainbows and unicorns - some moments are downright heartbreaking - but no one's childhood is all rainbows and unicorns.  If yours was, pull that horseshoe out of your ass let me have some of your luck.