Friday, July 30, 2010

Booker Dozen 2010: In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

In a Strange Room
The backstory: In a Strange Room is on the 2010 Booker longlist. I downloaded it for my Kindle as soon as the longlist was announced (it has since been shortlisted.) One of Damon Galgut's earlier novels, The Good Doctor, was shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize.

The basics: In a Strange Room is a curious book to describe. It could well be described as both a novel or three stories/novellas. The narrator is the same throughout the stories, and they're heavily connected through theme. None of the other characters or events transcend their sections, but it still felt like a novel to me. Regardless of its structural semantics, it's ultimately the tale of a South African man who travels the world (Africa, Europe and India) forming bonds with his fellow wanderers.

My thoughts: Galgut's writing captured me from the beginning of this novel. When he writes dialogue, he doesn't use quotation marks. Instead, he adds a blank line in between each speaker. He doesn't use question marks either, which brings a poignancy and nuance to many of the conversational statements that can work as both questions and statements. Using quotation marks and question marks yields fewer meanings, but Galgut avoids them and creates a concise prose with  the beautiful vagueness of poetry. He often uses commas to string together multiple sentences. His commandeering of punctuation was as mesmerizing as the musings of his characters:
"Myth always has some fact in it. And what is the face here. I don't know, this place exists, for a long time people thoughts it didn't, that's a fact to start with." 
Galgut seems to play with the reader too. The narrator jumps between first-person and third-person and offers glimpses of the future. Initially, I couldn't tell if the narrator was the main character. Galgut revealed it by jumping between first and third-person narrative within the same sentence, a trick he used several times. This switching alters the story in its own way as well. The reader and the narrator feel closer to the story at some times than others. Galgut's prose seems simple and straightforward, but he packs a remarkable amount of punch into it. Some statements even extend beyond double entendres: "This seems to mean one thing, but may mean another."

As much as I enjoyed Galgut's use of language and beautiful characterizations of people, the musings of a frequent traveler shined for me the most:
"He watches, but what he sees isn't real to him. Too much travelling and placelessness have put him outside everything, so that history happens elsewhere, it has nothing to do with him. He is only passing through. Maybe horror is felt more easily from home. This is both a redemption and an affliction, he doesn't carry any abstract moral burdens but their absence is represented for him by the succession of flyblown and featureless rooms he sleeps in, night after night, always changing but somehow always the same room."
"Something in him has changed, he can't seem to connect properly with the world. He feels this not as a failure of the world but as a massive failing in himself, he would like to change it but doesn't know how. In his clearest moments he thinks that he has lost the ability to love, people or places or things, most of all the person and place and thing that he is. Without love nothing has value, nothing can be made to matter very much. In this state travel isn't celebration but a kind of mourning, a way of dissipating yourself. He moves around from one place to another, not driven by curiosity but by the bored anguish of staying still." 
 As readers of this blog (and those who noticed the title of it) know, traveling and the modern nomadic lifestyle are themes that resonate strongly with me. I'm one who is fascinated by the stories of those anonymous faces who pass by me and wonders if their presence is relevant to my life and vice versa. Galgut has a much more poetic take on those whose paths cross ours: "Or perhaps he wants to see it like this, it's only human, after all, to look for a hint of destiny where love or longing is concerned."

Part of my appreciation of this book was seeing world travel through eyes so different than mine and reading it filtered through a character I don't think I would like to travel with. It was a curious dichotomy. I was fascinated by this actions and ideas, but I had no desire to actually engage in a conversation with this fictional character. Ultimately, I found myself raving intellectually more than emotionally about this book. I loved Galgut's writing, and I liked the story, but there was an emotional connection missing for me. I happen to believe that is Galgut's intent to illustrate the narrator's lack of emotional connection with people and places. Even this idea of intention makes me appreciate the writing more. For me to fully, emotionally engage as a reader, I need a connection. I'm a nomadic traveler who finds connections to people and places everywhere. I wander for joy.

Although it read like a novel to me, I was far more engaged during the first two sections. I was not terribly enchanted with the third section, which has me pondering if the order of these fractured stories matters. The journey of reading a novel is sometimes difficult as one who chronicles her thoughts on books. I find myself writing reviews in my head while I read, but I also often find my mind changing as the book goes on. Ultimately, my disaffection with the third section didn't affect my overall enjoyment of the book as a whole, but it did somewhat underwhelm.

The verdict: I thoroughly enjoyed this intellectually engaging novel, and I look forward to reading more of Galgut's work. Recommended for fans of literary fiction.

Booker thoughts: In a Strange Room is a smart, unique, modern novel. I'm glad it made the longlist. At this early juncture, I would not be upset if it won because of how I admire Galgut's work with it, but I doubt it will be my favorite.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: April 1, 2010
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

book review: The Quickening by Michelle Hoover

The Quickening
The backstory: Other Press has quickly become a publisher I look to and expect to like all of their titles. When I stopped by their booth at BEA, I knew I wanted to snag a copy of this novel, and I was thrilled when I got it.

The basics: The Quickening is the story of Enidina and Mary, two women with little in common except geography. Both live on a farm and they live near one another in a unnamed Midwestern state in the early 1900's.

My thoughts: Michelle Hoover was born in Ames, Iowa, where my grandmother grew up and where I spent much of my childhood visiting my great-grandmother. She's the granddaughter of four longtime farming families. My roots may not run as deep in farming, but I'm proud to be a sixth-generation Kansan. The Midwest is in my blood, and it shapes my cultural identity. I trace my family to Kansas and Iowa, and enough generations have called those states home that I truly don't think of the countries those first immigrants came from. All of this personal narrative merely serves to share the personal connection I felt with this novel even before I started it. I was imagining my own ancestors in Hoover's characters. Despite my affinity for Kansas and Iowa, I am a city loving nomad. The thought of life without air-conditioning, life working outside on a farm, and living in the isolated lands in the states I adore terrifies me. My mother has often said she would not have made a good pioneer woman, and I whole-heartedly agree. Despite all of my aversion to the lives Enidina and Mary lived, I felt an unbelievable kinship with them. I can't honestly say if this kinship stems from my own family history or from Hoover's simple, lovely writing.

The novel alternates chapters with Enidina and Mary narrating. Hoover did a wonderful job creating two distinct, dynamic female characters. Even when I picked up the book mid-chapter, I always knew who the narrator was. Typically in novels with multiple narrators, I have a favorite. In The Quickening, I loved both Enidina and Mary. I looked forward to both of their stories. Mary is certainly much more similar to me personally, but I was equally fascinated with Enidina, a woman so different from me but likely so similar to my ancestors.

The verdict: Hoover's language is as spare and powerful as the landscape she writes about, but her characters are dynamic and full of life. Recommended for fans of literary fiction and historical fiction.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5) 
Length: 224 pages
Publication date: June 29, 2010
Source: I got it at BEA from the publisher

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The 2010 Booker Dozen: Will You Read With Me?

As I'm sure you've heard by now, the 2010 Man Booker Prize longlist has been announced. I love awards, even when I disagree with the selections, so I was eagerly awaiting the list. The Booker dozen includes thirteen novels this year (there are either 12 or 13 novels on the longlist each year.) I haven't read any of them yet, but two were sitting on my shelves (Room by Emma Donoghue and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), a few were on my TBR (The Long Song by Andrea Levy, Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey, and Trespass by Rose Tremain), but more half are new discoveries. After looking over the list, I decided to jump in with both feet and read all thirteen longlisted novels this year. I hope to read the longlist before the announcement of the shortlist on September 7, 2010.

One reason I decided to read the longlist is how friendly it is to U.S. readers. Six are already available here:
Parrot and Olivier in AmericaThe Long Song: A NovelFebruaryThe Slap: A NovelIn a Strange RoomThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel
Four will be published in the U.S. in the next few months:
Skippy Dies: A NovelCTrespass: A NovelRoom: A Novel
(Skippy Dies: August 31, 2010; C September 7, 2010; Room September 13, 2010; Trespass October 18, 2010)

With ten out of thirteen easily available in the U.S., I pledged to read all thirteen by September 7, when the shortlist will be announced. I ordered the others from The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping!) and Amazon UK (the titles not available elsewhere). With 5,016 pages (according to my calculations), I'll need to average about 120 pages a day to meet my goal. If I slack off, I always have the back-up goal of reading the longlist by the time the winner is announced on October 12, 2010.

First up: In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut. I downloaded it for my Kindle, and I'm off to dig in. At only 256 pages, I hope to finish it tomorrow and strike the first book off my list. 

You can track my progress with the Booker Dozen list on the right sidebar of my blog. I'll also post my reviews as I finish each novel. 

Have you read any of the Booker longlist? Which titles are you most curious to see me review first?

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

book review: The Last War by Ana Menendez

The Last War: A Novel (P.S.)
The backstory: I've read and adored Ana Menendez's essays in Vogue in the past, but I had not read her novels. I had the intention of reading her novels since college, when I worked in a bookstore and got an ARC of In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd, which I moved an embarrassing number of times without ever reading it. I was thrilled to participate in this TLC tour for her latest novel, The Last War. 

The basics: The Last War is the story of Flash, a photojournalist married to a war reporter. The two have lived in wartorn areas throughout their marriage. This passage from early in the novel beautifully encapsulates both Menendez's writing and the characters:
"We were the war junkies: Eros and Chaos, endlessly drawn to the ragged margins where other people hated and died. It was as if we believed constant movement would deliver us finally from the disappointments of ordinary life." (pg. 2)
My thoughts: I loved this novel. I was captivated as much by the writing of Menendez as I was to Flash. I simultaneously felt the urge to devour this short novel in one sitting and savor it's wisdom for days. It helped that I would sit and reread powerful passages like this one several times before moving on: "It happens that certain people, like certain stories, linger deeper in the mind, sometimes lying still and hidden in a place inaccessible even to the warp of memory. When they suddenly surface, in a gesture, a sound, we may recognize them not as part of our own history, but almost as a shared memory that transcends even the boundaries of experience." (pg. 76).

Menendez is gifted at brief characterization that is powerful: "She was the American-born daughter of a British father and a Spanish mother--steeped from birth in the fluid identity that creates travelers and writers." Perhaps that particular characterization resonates so deeply with me because I am both a traveler and a writer  impassioned enough to name my blog (and to some extent myself) nomad reader.

Although dialogue was somewhat sparse, as the events in this novel occurred in places where our narrator did not speak the language, when the dialogue appeared, it flowed effortlessly into the narrative and provided some welcome humor:
"It's not like in the books," I said.
"That's the typical response of a non-reader," Alexandra said. "What do you know what's it's like in books?"
 I grimaced. "I hate when you get snotty. I actually read quite a bit."
"You're snotty. The whole lot of you. People think they're so complex and deep, impossible to figure out. In fact, if you read anything at all, you'd see a whole army of hacks have figured you out better than you ever could yourself." (pg. 98) 
The verdict: This novel is full of passages I love both as stand alone quotations and meaningful observation about life in the eyes of these characters. I love this line almost as much out of context as in it: "But it's always happy in the beginning--the great truism of love and revolution." (pg. 37).  I highly recommend it to fans of literary fiction, multicultural fiction, and travel memoirs.

Rating: 4.5 stars
Length: 225 pages 
Publication date: July 1, 2010
Source: Harper Perennial, via TLC Book Tours

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Monday, July 26, 2010

a delayed Sunday Salon

I've been absent for awhile around here. It turns out I'm not the only one who doesn't enjoy the heat. My computer hasn't been able to stay turned on. It thinks it's overheating and has taken to turning itself off before it can even finish turning on. I hope it can be fixed, but it's made it quite difficult to keep up with the blog. My husband and are both students, and we still manage to be a one computer (and one car) family. We've been talking about getting a netbook for almost a year now, and I think the time has finally arrived.

Once things are up and running again, I have so much to share with you. I can't wait to weigh in on tomorrow's Man Booker Prize long list announcement. I'm hosting a TLC Tour for Anna Menendez's engaging novel The Last War tomorrow. I hope to have review up soon for The Education of Bet, a beautiful, historical young adult novel by Lauren Baratz-Logsted, The Quickening, Michelle Hoover's promising debut novel, and Red Hook Road, the latest novel from Ayelet Waldman.
The Education of BetThe QuickeningRed Hook Road
Finally, if you've been reading this blog, you know how much I enjoy eating at my favorite Albany restaurant, New World Bistro Bar. Before I started working Friday nights, I loved to enjoy a film at the Spectrum Theatres and go next door for dinner. I hope to resurrect my Dinner and a Movie feature this summer, but in the meantime, I'm thrilled to report New World's chef, Ric Orlando, will be a contestant on Chopped tomorrow night. Chopped airs at 10 p.m. on the Food Network. It's always a fascinating show, and I'm excited to see how Ric does.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Blog Tour: The Education of Bet by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

The Education of Bet
To celebrate this week's release of Lauren Baratz-Logsted's most recent novel, The Education of Bet, a historical novel for young adults, she is embarking on a one question interview tour. I loved The Education of Bet (review coming tomorrow), which is the story of a sixteen-year-old girl in Victorian England who impersonates a boy in order to receive a proper education. I'm thrilled to welcome Lauren today! 

My one question:
Bet loves to read. Do you share her taste in reading? If not, why did you choose to her love books you don't love?
Well, I can't say I've ever had to translate a vulgus as she does, but Bet loves her Shakespeare - it's reading Shakespeare to Will's great-uncle and learning to do a range of accents that convinces her she can impersonate a boy's voice - and I love my Shakespeare too. Bet really is a sponge when it comes to books and I'm the same. I read a bit of everything. In fact, it's a good thing books aren't really drugs - although at times they seem so! - because if they were I'd be dead by now.

Want more of the one question blog tour?

Earlier this week, Vasilly asked: What is one of your favorite passages from a book or short story? 

Angie asks: If you could spend 24 hours with one fictional character, which character would you pick and what would you do? 

For more on Lauren Baratz-Logsted and her novels for children, teens and young adults, visit her Web site. Thanks, Lauren!

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the my affiliate links. Thank you!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Coveting: Norton Fall 2010

Although I missed out on getting a galley of the new Nicole Krauss novel, Great House, at both BEA and ALA, the good folks at Norton were kind enough to send me a copy. With it, I also received their beautiful, glossy, Fall 2010-Winter 2011 catalog. I couldn't resist highlighting a few of their other titles I am now eagerly anticipating this fall.
All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost: A Novel
All Is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost is the newest novel by Lan Samantha Chang, who is the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. It seems her experience there ties into the novel too: "At the renowned writing school in Bonneville, every student is simultaneously terrified of and attracted to the charismatic and mysterious poet and professor Miranda Sturgis, whose high standards for art are both intimidating and inspiring. As two students, Roman and Bernard, strive to win her admiration, the lines between mentorship, friendship, and love are blurred." It will be published in September.

Trespass: A Novel
Trespass is the newest novel by Orange Prize winner Rose Tremain. Here's the blurb from the catalog: "In a silent valley in southern France stands an isolated stone farmhouse, the Mas Lunel. Aramon, the owner, is so haunted by his violent past that he's become incapable of all meaningful action, letting, his hunting dogs starve and his land go to ruin. Meanwhile, his sister Audrun, alone in her modern bungalow within sight of the Mas Lunel, dreams of exacting retribution for the unspoken betrayals that have blighted her life. Into this closed world comes Anthony Verey, a wealthy but disillusioned antiques dealer from London. When he sets his sights on the Mas, a frightening and unstoppable series of consequences is set in motion." It will be published in October.

The Convent: A Novel
I'm not familiar with the work of Panos Karnezia, but one of his novels was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. Here's a bit about Convent: "The crumbling convent of Our Lady of Mercy stands alone in an uninhabited part of the Spanish sierra, hidden on a hill among dense forest. Its inhabitants are devoted to God, to solitude and silence--six women cut off from a world they've chosen to leave behind. This all changes on the day that Mother Superior Maria Ines discovers a suitcase punctured with airholes at the entrance to the retreat: a baby, abandoned to its fate." The London Sunday Times is already raving: "In this beautifully told novel, 'we witness justice and injustice, theological controversy, the politics of a tiny enclosed society, despair, cruelty, generosity, scandal, suspicion and suicide, all told with immense verve and skill." It will be published in November.

Don't these novels look wonderful? Which one sounds the most intriguing to you?

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

book review: Everything, Lovely, Effortless, Safe by Jenny Hollowell

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe: A Novel

The backstory: Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe is Jenny Hollowell's first novel. Her short stories have been published in numerous places, and I remembered her short story in New Sudden Fiction, which publishes short-short stories less than 2000 words.

The basics: Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe is the story of Birdie, a young struggling actress in Los Angeles who left her life as a preacher's wife in Virginia to pursue fame. The quote on the cover nails it: "This novel is smart, spare, comic, and sad. It rings beautifully true." - John Casey

My thoughts: Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe is not a novel that grabbed me a reader right away. I enjoyed Hollowell's writing, but it took me quite some time to care about Birdie, the main character. The novel initially reads like short stories, and the shorts chapters in this novel would almost all fall into that category. (The book is 220 pages and has 79 chapters, some as short as one sentence). Unlike the most famous short chapter writer, James Patterson, Hollowell's brief chapters were at times more interesting and insightful than the longer ones. She clearly and consciously chose the time and way to break up the action and character development. The results were wonderful if you're a fan of the construction of fiction. If you're a fan of plot, then this novel might not excite.

As the novel continued, a clearer picture of Bridie emerges, and the novel really came alive for me. I enjoyed Hollowell's writing throughout, despite a few first coming of age novel cliches. As the novel progresses, the reader gains a better picture of Birdie than she has of herself. Each chapter provides a different snapshot of Birdie, and many of these, especially early on, are not linear. It's a deceptively dense novel, and it's not a novel full of action. I laughed out loud at times, I underlined especially poetic passages, and it's taking immense restraint to not share the novel's last lines with you. Their beauty is more exquisite at the end of the book than without reading it.

The verdict: If you're a fan of unconventionally structured novels, character studies and short stories, you'll enjoy Everything, Lovely, Effortless, Safe. If you're a fan of action and a traditional narrative, then this novel may not entice you. I'm already looking forward to more novels from Jenny Hollowell.

Rating: 4 stars
Length: 220 pages
Publication date: June 8, 2010
Source: I received a copy from the publisher via Library Thing Early Reviewers

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

heat wave!

I've been absent this week. I still haven't written my ALA recap. I've been reading but not reviewing. I have a good reason. Albany (and the rest of the northeast) is in the midst of a heat wave. It's ugly. Our usual high temperature has been our low temperature. We're breaking records that have stood for years. Yes, it's July, but we are a city without air conditioning in homes. 98 is too much. To be honest, I detest the heat and 80 is too much for me, but I could handle 80 right now. My reprieve? The best $18 ever spent (and it wasn't even my $18.)
It doesn't look like much, but it's 8-feet wide and 18-inches high. It's perfect. It sits in the shade, so even now, several days into the heat wave, the water is cool. It's so cool it takes me, who loves the cold, several minutes to get inside the pool. Once I'm there, it looks like this:

You'll have to forgive me from my absence from the blog and Twitter. While I won't take my Kindle or library books in the pool, I do take my ARCs, so my pile of review copies is actually shrinking and soon, when the temperature drops below 90 (or perhaps 80), there will be reviews again. Until then, stay cool!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

The third annual Book Blogger Appreciation Week will be held September 13-17, 2010. This year, bloggers have the opportunity to nominate (or self-register) for the awards.

I am self-registering for Best Literary Fiction Blog and Best Written Book Blog.

After quite a bit of thinking about what this blog is, I decided it is a literary fiction blog. It hasn't always been. I aim to review each book I read, and I've been a somewhat eclectic reader. When I took children's literature in the Spring of 2009, I became engrossed in children's and young adult literature and reviewed as many children's and young adult books as adult books. After taking a step back and deciding to read deliberately this year, this blog, too, has changed into a literary fiction blog. Literary fiction has been my favorite genre for years, and I don't think it's a surprise I'm finding my reading more satisfying and engaging since I returned to focusing on my favorite genre.

Here are my posts for Best Literary Fiction Blog:
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Here are my posts for Best Written Book Blog:
E-book pricing
Deliberate television watching
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey
Evil at Heart by Chelsea Cain
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore


Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Brothers Karamazov Read-a-long

Here at the midway point of the year, I've been doing a good job of reading deliberately. I've read the Orange Prize shortlist and plan to read the longlist. I'm reading mostly literary fiction, but I haven't dabbled in the classics yet. Jill at Fizzy Thoughts is hosting a read-a-long of The Brothers Karamazov, and I'm excited (and scared) to join her in reading this classic.
Here are the details

My copy of the K Bros (you’ve got to be kidding if you think I’m typing Karamazov every time) is 776 pages of small print. However, the book is conveniently broken up into 4 parts. And each part has 3 books. That makes 12 books total (plus a short epilogue). It sounds much more manageable like that, doesn’t it?

We’re going to suggest reading a book a week (although if you’re a glutton for punishment and/or a procrastinator, feel free to do all of your reading the night before). But we’re only going to post our summaries/thoughts/pleas for help at the end of each part. Which means we’ll write our posts at the end of weeks 3, 6, 9 and 12.
The official start date for this adventure is July 10th. And here’s the official reading and posting schedule:
Book 1: 7/10-7/16
Book 2: 7/17-7/23
Book 3: 7/24-7/30
Post #1: around July 30/31
Book 4: 7/31-8/6
Book 5: 8/7-8/13
Book 6: 8/14-8/20
Post #2: around August 20/21
Book 7: 8/21-8/27
Book 8: 8/28-9/3
Book 9: 9/4-9/10
Post #3: around September 10/11
Book 10: 9/11-9/17
Book 11: 9/18-9/24
Book 12 plus the short Epilogue: 9/24-10/1
Post #4: around October 1/2
The End (you might want to consider a shot or two or three of vodka to celebrate)
If you want to join in this read-a-long too, sign up at Fizzy Thoughts!