Books to Savor – {Gone Girl}


Gone Girl: A Novel
by: Gillian Flynn

I meant to post this on Friday, but, well, life got in the way, so you’re getting this on Monday instead. This book is, I’d probably say, not one of my typical reads. But it’s one I could not put down. It also happens to be one I read along with a couple other ladies from Bigger Picture Blogs in our very first Reading Circles LIVE session, where we talked about our reactions to the book and analyzed the author’s work together via Skype. I can tell you my friends were also totally engrossed by this book.

Gone Girl is about a marriage gone horribly, fantastically wrong. On what would be their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick’s beautiful wife, Amy, disappears, leaving behind a scene of what looks like a massive struggle and, potentially, her murder. Fingers begin pointing at Nick, and he does little to help himself. But entries from Amy’s diary suggest there’s more than meets the eye with her as well. Nick insists he is innocent, but clearly he’s not going to be winning any Husband of the Year awards. The question is…was that enough to make him a killer?

Gillian Flynn is truly a genius when it comes to suspense. Her characters are intense and believable, even at their craziest, and I found myself rooting for them, even when they make me cringe. I can honestly say I could not even remotely anticipate the twists and turns this book’s plot takes. Meanwhile, her prose is sharp, witty, with some surprising and thought-provoking social commentary smuggled in along the way. The book is a New York Times bestseller, and for good reason.

If you’re in the mood for some gritty, tight-jawed suspense that’ll keep you turning the pages well past the depletion of the midnight oil, I’d definitely recommend you check out Gone Girl.

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy


The Casual Vacancy
J.K. Rowling

Being the unapologetic and incorrigible fan of Harry Potter that I am, it was pretty much inevitable that I would pounce on JK Rowling’s new book the minute it was released.

I knew going in to reading it that it was a book meant for an adult audience, and so I tried to keep that perspective in mind as I read it. The story begins with the death of a central character, Barry Fairbrother, an upstanding citizen and member of the Parish Council. With his death comes chaos as he was, in many ways, a linchpin holding the little town together. The question arises: who will fill his seat – one who continues his policies or one who will dismantle all he has built?

Over the course of the story, we’re introduced to various members of the city, including, among others: Fairbrother’s opposition and his simpering wife; Cubby Wall, Fairbrother’s friend and loyal supporter; Kay, a social worker with a penchant for chasing emotionally unavailable men; Dr. Parminda Jawanda, who may or may not have been in love with Fairbrother; and Samantha, a drunk with a clear eye for others’ flaws and no control over herself. The story progresses through the eyes of each of these very flawed characters as well as a few of their children. Though we bounce from each character’s perspectives, the result is not a sympathetic view – even if there are a few characters we (sort of) come to like. Instead, the book is a rather scathing critique of the community and its foibles; in a sense, a dark comedy of errors. Mental illnesses, drugs, sexual exploits, masturbation, poverty, and abuse all come into play.

The high point of the book came for me, about two-thirds of the way in, when the underlying themes became clear. I read an interview with Rowling where she admits “Responsibility” was in her head as the book’s title through much of the time she was writing it. It would have been an apt title, as the characters’ actions, even when meant for the best, spiral outwards and lead to unintended consequences. It was a powerful message and effectively delivered.

However, I have to say, as neutral as I tried to be, it was still awkward to read about things like a mother shooting up heroin and a teenage boy experiencing an erection in a voice that reminds me so forcibly of Ronald Weasley. Rowling’s voice as an author is just so strong and distinctive, I couldn’t escape it or the memories it conjures.

But the real irony is, as much as the book purports to be for adults, it doesn’t quite attain the realism of adult literature I personally like to see – except with regards to the kids in the book. Most of the time, the story came across a tad cartoonish. Though the subject is very adult and real, I didn’t find the book to have a very gritty, raw, or real feel, and I believe that’s mostly due to the adult characters being too flat and one-dimensional. True to form, it’s Rowling’s adolescent characters (especially Andrew Price, who seeks retribution against an abusive father and thus causes communal uproar, and Sukhvinder Jawanda, a shy Sikh cutter who turns almost-a-hero) who are the most interesting, complex, and evolved – and they are the ones who shoulder the burden of bringing the story to life.

I wanted to love the book and congratulate Rowling on her foray into adult genres. It was an okay read, but I can’t say I loved it. In any case, as a writer, I find it really interesting to read another writer trying to branch out of their genre and flex different muscles, so it was worth reading in that sense. But if I want to read JKR, I think I’m going to stick to the Harry Potter books.

 

Books to Savor: 1Q84

1Q84
by Haruki Murakami

When I first moved to Thailand, my cousin took me to a Kinokuniya bookstore in Bangkok. It was there that I first came across Haruki Murakami’s work. I picked up Norwegian Wood and was immediately seduced by Murakami’s writing.

His is the kind I want to underline simply for its beauty, as his prose is both spare and gorgeous in its precise, poignant simplicity.

When I went back to Bangkok last month, it seemed only fitting to pick up another of his books. The surprising thing is, normally, I don’t read books much like Murakami’s work, which has a tendency towards the surreal. And normally, I would be put off by a door-stopper of a book (my copy exceed 1,300 pages). But I was in the mood to be totally immersed in a new world, and though Murakami’s work verges towards the surreal, the characters and their experiences are depicted in such a way that I can easily relate to them, even if I’ve never experience anything similar. And the themes of alienation and loneliness strike through to my core.

It’s no wonder this author has garnered so much international attention.

1Q84 is a trilogy set in Tokyo, in the year 1984. It tells the story of Aomame, who, following the advice of a taxi driver in the thick of traffic, escapes down a stairway and finds herself in a parallel reality, which she dubbs 1Q84 - “Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.” Meanwhile, Tengo, an aspiring writer gets sucked into a not-quite-legal ghostwriting project that brings him ever closer to serious danger. Their two stories converge over the course of the year, and the connections between the two get ever more entangled through the scheming and manipulations of an enigmatic and gorgeous teenage girl, a wealthy dowager bent on protecting abused women, and the upper echelons of a mysterious religious cult. Escape from this alternate world gets ever more precarious as a hideously ugly private investigator hunts them down.

It’s a love story, a mystery, a dystopia, and fantasy all rolled into one. It has beautiful characterizations like:

“Fuka-Eri kept looking straight into Tengo’s eyes as if she were looking into an empty house with her face pressed up against the glass.”

and

“The void was not one that Fuka-Eri had made. It had always been there inside Tengo. She had merely managed to shine a special light on it.”

And beautiful truths like:

“But there are certain meanings that are lost forever the moment they are explained in words.”

“The body is not the only target of rape. Violence does not always take a visible form, and not all wounds gush blood.”

and

“Life is so uncertain: you never know what could happen. One way to deal with that is to keep your pajamas washed.”

If you are in the mood to get totally immersed in a world that feels both foreign and familiar, and to read poignant observations on life’s intricacies and ironies and complex ideas exposed through simply rendered prose, then I’d highly recommend 1Q84. It’s absorbing. There’s subtle, dry wit. And I love the ending.

 

Disclosure: My Books to Savor posts are reviews of books I picked up of my own accord and share with you simply because I’ve enjoyed them. If you are interested in picking up this book, I’d appreciate it if you’d click through to Amazon via the links in this post, which will put a few pennies toward a gift certificate for me at Amazon that I can use to buy more books to share with you. Many thanks!

Book Review: The Jericho River

The Jericho River: A Magical Novel About the History of Western Civilization
by: David Carthage

Have you ever wished you had a better sense of the scope of our world history? Do you feel like you vaguely recall some major or random moments you once learned in high school or while sitting in your Western Civ class, but that generally those tidbits are disconnected and ad hoc and, despite your years of schooling, you’re still not sure how all those pieces fit?

I’m kind of like that. I’m a big picture thinker, which means I often have trouble recalling details and minutiae. And history, the way it was taught to me, felt like nothing but a series of details: facts with no framework, puzzle pieces but no picture.

That’s just one reason why I was impressed with David Carthage’s book,The Jericho River: A Magical Novel About the History of Western Civilization, a young adult novel drawing on fantasy to reveal history’s grand themes and little surprises. When I first picked up the book, I thought it might be like the history of Western Civilization, Cliff’s Notes style – Western Civ 101 recapped. But it’s not like that at all!

The Jericho River opens with the story of a modern day teenage boy, Jason Gallo, who has a problematic relationship with his father, a history professor consumed by work. But trouble quickly emerges when Jason’s father falls into a sudden, mysterious coma–which it turns out is the effect of him being sucked into an alternate reality: the world of Fore. It falls upon Jason to follow his father there, rescue him, and bring him back home. Along the way, Jason meets mystical beasts, battles minotaurs, barbarians, and pirates, falls in love, and discovers he’s made of stronger stuff than he ever thought possible. As the reader gets sucked into this engaging and enchanting tale – with a bit of a surprise at the end! -footnotes and chapter intros highlight tidbits from Professor Gallo’s lectures and writings which give a sense of the larger trends going on in the world around them, as well as interesting and humorously told trivia about things like the origin of the story of Moses, where cherubs come from, how we get the word “lesbian” from the Greek poet Sappho, evidence Cleopatra might have been a redhead, and (my personal favorite) where coffee was first introduced.

It tells the trajectory of the world as it grew, as civilization emerged and spread, as empires rose and fell, and as major developments in technology and world thought shaped the future. It tells us our story in a much more thematic manner, with a fast-paced and engaging plot to pull us along the way – an amazing feat in just 300 pages!

If I have any quibbles with the book, I might say it was a little slow at the start, and, as a reader of historical fiction, I might have liked to see a little more richness in detail about the world of Fore: what people wore, what they lived in, what the world around them looked, smelled, tasted, felt like. I’m not saying descriptions needed to be lengthy, but a few well-chosen, precise descriptors can go a long way toward helping the reader feel she is there in the world of the author’s creation and that the characters are grounded in a world that feels real. But these are minor quibbles because the book does pick up the pace and hit its stride about a third of the way in. And I can understand wanting to keep the book on the shorter side as well, so one can’t wallow in too much detail.

This book was a really fun read, one I’d love to keep on my bookshelf. I would highly recommend it for classroom use, for teachers who’d like to give their students a great overview of history to read alongside learning the factual details, and I would recommend it for adults who’d like a light read that offers the bonus refresher on the major developments in the the history of Western Civilization.

Photo courtesy of pintsofhistory.com

The Jericho River: A Magical Novel About the History of Western Civilization is available for purchase on Amazon. If you want to learn more about the book, check out the book’s website: www.JerichoRiver.com. There, you can also find the book’s table of contents, an excerpt, and get a sneak peek at some of the book’s illustrations. The author, David Carthage, who is a lawyer with a BA in history, can also be found on his personal blog: Pints of History - also a fun read where you can find out fascinating tidbits like: why so many of history’s kings married their sisters (including Thailand’s King Chulalongkorn who married four!) and how armor made of cotton might have been better than the ones made of steel.

This book review is in exchange for receiving a free advance copy of the book, which the author sent to me (all the way here in Thailand!), and I agreed to read and review in return. The opinions in this book review are my own, and are an honest representation of my response in reading the book.

Books To Savor {Author P.D. James}

As I have been meandering outside my usual genre, I’d like to highlight some great reads I’ve come across along the way. I don’t normally read mysteries, but the two I have to share with you today are, I think, intriguing for any lover of a good story.

The author of both is P.D. James. I was first introduced to her when, one weekend, I was driving from my parent’s house to my apartment in college. I was desperate for something to keep me occupied on the three-hour drive, so I snagged my mom’s audiobook collection of Death in Holy Orders. I remember how well I got sucked into the story and fell in love with the main character, Commander Adam Dalgliesh, on that rainy drive, and how unready I was to press stop when I had arrived at my destination. She also penned the novel The Children of Men, which spurred the fantastic movie by the same name. So when I went looking for mystery, I looked no further than P.D. James–and these two pieces did not disappoint.

Devices and Desires (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries, No. 8) opens with the first victim of a serial killer called The Whistler. Commander Dalgliesh happens to be in the area when a relative dies and he is responsible for sorting the details of the estate, and thus he gets sucked into the investigation. Over the course of the book, the plot comes to light through conversations between characters and inner monologue, revealing complex relationships and multiple potential suspects and motives, as the killer continues to attack. It is dark and full of unexpected twists, and even when you think perhaps nothing is happening, you’re still glued to the page by James’ fine prose (leave it to her to expand your vocabulary!) and intricate examinations into the human character.
When I picked up The Private Patient I didn’t realize it was James’ last Dalgliesh novel–or that she was apparently in her 80s when she wrote it! The story is about a woman who was tragically scarred in childhood, and after distinguishing herself as an investigative journalist who doesn’t hesitate to step on a few toes in her search for a scandal, goes to have the facial scar removed at a private clinic–where she is murdered. Adam Dalgliesh enters the investigation, which becomes even more complicated when a second murder occurs. This is another example of James’ fantastic writing, complex characters, and rumination on the human psyche. Some readers have said this one isn’t their favorite of her writing–though they still give James props, because heck, she was in her eighties–and I can understand how certain parts got a bit repetitive. I think the only part that I wished had gone differently was that I wish that Dalgliesh had gotten to know the victim a little bit more, especially the reason she was there at the clinic (which the reader knows, even if the investigator doesn’t). But then, that’s life isn’t it? We don’t always get to know who people are or why they do the things they do. A good detective will seek out justice for them, no matter who they ever were.

Books to Savor – {An Abundance of Katherines}

An Abundance of Katherines
by John Green

Did I whet your appetite for literary YA last week? Maybe even some John Green? I really enjoyed starting with Looking for Alaska, but it’s a real toss-up whether I like that one or this one better.

An Abundance of Katherines is the story of child prodigy, Colin Singleton, who by the very virtue of being a prodigy, fears he will never be a genius (there’s a difference). He also has a proclivity for making up anagrams and getting dumped by girls named Katherine.

After getting dumped for the nineteenth time, Colin heads out on a road trip with his best friend, the lazy jokester, man-boobed Hassan. Along the way, he attempts to derive a theorem to explain and predict relationships, hoping to thereby protect himself against all future Katherines and prove himself a genius. As you can imagine, not all goes to plan and the real test comes in learning to let go.

This book is chock full of excellent quotes too. Like:

“You don’t remember what happened. What you remember becomes what happened.”

“What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?”

“If people could see me the way I see myself – if they could live in my memories – would anyone love me?”

and

“Books are the ultimate Dumpees: put them down and they’ll wait for you forever; pay attention to them and they always love you back.”

I turned my hubby on to the John Green books too and this one was definitely his favorite. I think it really resonated with him in unexpected ways. Reading through reviews on Goodreads, I found people had mixed responses to it – which makes me think John Green is much like Paolo Coehlo: he writes straight to the heart, but each book captures a different essence of experience, so the one that resonates most with you is the one that captures your experience. If you like laughable, light-hearted, yet touching nerdisms, this might be your kind of book.

Books to Savor {Looking for Alaska}


Looking for Alaska
by John Green

As I mentioned earlier this week, I’m going to highlight a few books that I’ve enjoyed reading even though they were a stretch outside my normal fare. But I chose them for their promise of being light and easy reads, but with enough meat to keep my interest sustained and my eyes from rolling.

It used to be that romance novels were my go-to for brain candy: summer reads, bored-on-weekend-reads, trying-to-get-through-a-long-flight reads, etc. And I did read a ton (I had a secret guilt stash hidden away in a cupboard in my apartment). But I pretty much only read Nora Roberts because any time I tried to branch out to a new author, I would go insane and hurl the books away because they actually included swooning. Or men picking the women up and throwing them over their shoulder. Or horrifically poor dialogue. No offense, but that’s not my fantasy. And I loved Nora Roberts for her smart, capable heroines and snappy dialogue, but after a while even her books got formulaic and dull.

With romance (as a genre) out the window, I still wanted to find something that makes me happy when I read it. Love, friendship, humor, and adventure, but with a little deeper soul searching too. Turns out literary YA novels totally fit the bill. This is probably not news to all of you, but it’s kind of a new revelation for me. Or a remembering anew. Something like that.

One of the first I started with was John Green’s Looking for Alaska. Green is a fairly new author and this one was his first published. It tells the story of Miles Halter, a misfit Florida teenager in love with last words, who leaves home and goes away to boarding school – of his own volition! – because he is in search of “a Great Perhaps.” What a fantastic sentiment! And one I’ve totally adopted. He makes friends with rough and loyal Chip Martin and falls in love with sexy, edgy Alaska. They get into all sorts of school pranks, toeing the line between hilarity and disaster, until that edge gets so razor sharp it cuts…and nothing is the same again. And Miles must contemplate the great question of how to exit “this labyrinth of suffering,” and therein discover the true worth of love and a life lived unconditionally.

It’s funny and touching, and makes me think of all the things I really should have been doing in high school, if only I’d known what I know now. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then I think you might be a fan of John Green too.

Books to Savor: The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot

by: Jeffrey Eugenides

This book was a lot of fun, and a bit of a surprising departure from Middlesex, but every bit as good. (I mean, heck, it’s been named Best Book of 2011 by a variety of sources.)

Actually, this is the book I wish I had in college, when I was reading up on critical theory. This book would have made all that so much more interesting and inviting – it even inspired me to do a quick refresher and wikipedia a bunch of theorists to learn about their lives and ideas. (Don’t tell my old professors.)

Anyway, the book. The Marriage Plot is set in the early 1980s, where three students – the beautiful Madeleine Hanna, charismatic Leonard Bankhead, and earnest Mitchell Grammaticus – are studying together at Brown. Madeleine’s professor contends that the Novel died with Jane Austen and her ilk, and that what was good for women’s rights, ultimately killed the marriage as plot. That very idea gets tested as Madeleine, and incurable romantic, navigates her own way through college and into real life, torn by these two very different men who have their own journeys to explore.

This book is both light-hearted and deep, witty and wry, sweet, with just a touch of bitter irony. Plus you learn a bit along the way! If you’ve ever read and loved Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder, this is a book for you. The beginning third, especially, is very much like Sophie’s World - for adults.

Books to Savor: The Lost Wife

The Lost Wife
Alyson Richman

I seem to be finding quite a few books these days through stumbling across intriguing quotes from the author. Richman said she got the idea for the book from a comment she overheard at a wedding. The groom’s grandfather happened to meet the bride’s grandmother at the wedding rehearsal. He recognized her immediately and asked her to lift her sleeve, revealing the number tattooed on her arm. He knew her. “You were my wife,” said he.

From this true story, Richman weaves a really touching tale of love and loss, loyalty and separation, the depths to which we will go for family even amidst the most horrendous, incomprehensible destruction. The characters are full and rich and endearing, and the premise hooks you from the very start.

I only had two quibbles with the book. One, in several scenes the writing keeps switching back and forth between past and present tense. It gets really distracting. If it was intentional, I can’t figure out why. If it wasn’t intentional, I have no idea how that got past editorial. And two, the part focusing on life in the ghetto and work camps dragged on a bit too much for me. I feel horrible saying that, but I say it only because it felt like this book wasn’t a book really about the Holocaust and what happened there. If it was about that, then it glosses over the horrors and doesn’t serve its function much. I certainly wasn’t reading it to learn more about the Holocaust, because there are plenty of other resources for that, that do a much better job. Meanwhile, what I would have liked to see more of was the aftermath: life after destruction. That part was pretty much summarized just before the end, and it felt like a lost opportunity.

While I was reading the book, I felt annoyed by these two things and prevented me from fully immersing in the latter half of the book. However, after I put the book down, it really did stay with me. I found myself thinking about it as I went about my day, and even bringing it up at dinner with my husband, and if a book can do that, that’s saying something. I think, because it was at hear about love and the impossible decisions we’re sometimes confronted with, it made me feel in a much stronger way what things were like before the Final Solution. I found myself wondering how long I would have waited. I can’t even comprehend how or what choice I would have made in the same situation. I wonder if I, too, would have waited until it was too late.

All in all, a worthy read and not your typical story from the Holocaust.

Are you a writer, or someone who wants to get back in touch with writing? Join in our book club for writers at Bigger Picture Reads! Find me there today!

Books to Savor: The Book of Salt

 The Book of Salt
by: Monique Truong

When I normally introduce books to savor, I usually mean we can savor the language, the beauty of the words, the sharp poignancy of meaning… This book might actually be delicious.

The Book of Salt tells the story of Binh, a 26-year-old Vietnamese cook working in the house of GertrudeStein (said all as one word) and Alice Toklas, in Paris in the 1920′s. He’s the silent observer to all that goes on in the literary echelons, and he brushes fingertips with power of the likes of the young Ho Chi Minh, as he battles his own questions and memories of home in Saigon, and looks for love in the city that both flaunts it and smashes it to smithereens.

{Aside: Am I just on a kick, or is there a remarkable resurgence of all things Jazz Age, especially Paris? Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Paris, 1920′s, slick prose and loose morals…these elements keep popping up all over the place! I suspect there’s a renewed fascination with that age since we seem to be going through its mirror image now, what with the highlife followed by a market crash and the malaise that follows. I digress…}

This book was actually a Christmas gift to me, but Vietnamese cook transplanted on foreign soil, food, literature and Paris? I’m in. The language is beautiful and erudite, told in a compelling voice, all that much more plaintive and rich in contrast to the protagonist who himself is silenced and fumbles for words in a foreign tongue he can never own. In lieu of French expressions, he must convey all his sensibilities through the language of food, a thousand words served in an omelette, a hundred hopes on a plate of foie gras.

Truong’s debut novel is full of delights and fascination. The narration does stretch past a few traditional limits at times, frankly observing and relating what the narrator could not quite plausibly see. I don’t mind a little rule-breaking so long as it makes sense. In this book, most of the time the narration gets a bit far out of course, the reader can blithely make excuses and continue along her merry way. But there was an instance or two where the narration says something that the narrator simply would not have said, it being so contrary to his nature, and there my willingness to play along ran a tad thin.

Nevertheless, that’s a minor quibble for a book that should otherwise be a tasty treat to the foodies, the wishful, and the transplanted.

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