Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sunday Salon: on being a novel reader and lover

 In two novels I've read this month (So Much for That by Lionel Shriver and Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier), the main characters have mentioned their lack of desire to read novels. It may not be uncommon to encounter people who are dismissive of novels, but I am fascinated by fictional characters in novels dismissing the genre. There's a certain amount of irony at play, to be sure, but my recent encounters are quite different and both interesting. (I'll do my best to avoid plot spoilers.)

So Much for That: A NovelIn So Much for That, Shep mentions a few times how much his retired father enjoys reading mystery novels. As he ponders what life will be like once he stops working, he muses what he might like to read, but he concludes, "maybe he wasn't cut out for novels. He's rather live a good story than read one." My first thought (full disclosure) was the famous line from You've Got Mail when Meg Ryan's character, a small bookshop owner, muses via email that
"Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life - well, valuable, but small - and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven't been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn't it be the other way around? I don't really want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void. So good night, dear void."
You've Got MailI've always loved that line, even though I don't love the movie as a whole. For one thing, it came out in 1998 when I was a senior in high school. I remember seeing it in the theater and scribbling down that passage. At that time in my life, I was a huge reader who often commented on how things, people and places I encountered reminded me of things I read in a book. I envisioned college and adulthood providing me the opposite. My optimism as a traveler and a reader knew no bounds.

When I began to think more deeply about Shep's conclusion, however, the reader in me believes the two aren't mutually exclusive. For me, in fact, part of living a good story is reading them. The fiction I read helps shape the way I look at the world. I get told somewhat frequently that I give great advice. My immediate reaction: it's because I read so many novels. The explanation doesn't make much sense to some, but to me, it's obvious. Fiction makes me understand the perspective of others. I'm partial to fiction with multiple narrators because I love to analyze situations from more than one angle. It enhances my appreciation for life.

Remarkable Creatures: A Novel
In Remarkable Creatures, a historical novel set in the early 1800's in Lyme, England, Elizabeth Philpot and her two unmarried sisters must come to terms with their singleness when their brother gets married. Their family is well-off enough that they need not work, but not wealthy enough for the three sisters to continue to live in London. Faced with finding a less expensive place to live, the three all had preferences based on their hobbies. One of Elizabeth's sisters loved to read novels, but Elizabeth dismissed fiction, particularly the romance novels of the time her sister was partial to: "I did not need novels to remind me of what I had missed." Though happy with her life, Elizabeth would have enjoyed being married. She did not want to read about a life she could not have.

Elizabeth's anti-novel sentiment is quite different from Shep's, but both center around life and happiness. There are few things that bring more joy to my life than reading novels. I don't adore short stories, although I enjoy many of them. I also enjoy narrative non-fiction, but rarely does it provide the intellectual and emotional sustenance I get from novels. I'm wise enough to know many people do not have such a similar reaction to reading novels, but one of my favorite things about book blogging is interacting with other novel-lovers who do get it. 

For me, great novels are majestic. I love to read about the lives, thoughts and experiences of others. I welcome novels about people in different times, places and who have different means. I'm happy with my life and my level of adventure. Sure, I'd travel more if I could afford to, but otherwise, I'm content. I disagree with Shep. I want to live a good life, but I don't want to live a good story. A novel based on my life would likely be quite dull. Unlike, Elizabeth, who lived in a hard time to be a single woman, I'm not held back in most of the ways she was because she was a woman. The missing things in my life are missing because of my choice. I must ask myself, is it because I am so happy that I enjoy reading novels? Is it a luxury as it has been throughout history? As someone who has surely been blessed, are novels my reward? In a sense, they are. The librarian in me believes there are books out there for everyone, but taking the time to sit, read and ponder what you're reading is a luxury. It's one I build my life around because it brings me joy and a greater understanding of humanity and our world.

Do you love novels? Is it a luxury? Would you rather live a good story than read one?

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

book review: How to Escape from a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique

How to Escape from a Leper Colony: A Novella and StoriesThe backstory:  How to Escape from a Leper Colony was one of the 5 Under 35 selections from the National Book Foundation this year.

My thoughts: This book is dubbed a novella and stories, but I would classify it as including two novellas. As always with collections, however, it's difficult to describe. The common themes among the stories are their Virgin Islands setting and ideas on colonialism. I found overtones of ideas from Monique Roffey's White Woman on a Green Bicycle (my review), which looked at an ex-patriot British couple living in Trinidad. I don't mean to equate colonial literature about two different countries, but there were some thematic similarities.

Regular readers know I am not a huge fan of short story collections, but I do often enjoy them. I adored Tiphanie Yanique's writing, and she skillfully evoked strong characters and a setting, which was especially impressive in the shorter stories.
"Movies are like so much art. They can start a revoltuion. This was not a movie about war. Or about race and oppression; no one talked about those things in 1939. A man loved a woman. A woman loved a man. They were willing to do bad things for that love." (pages 8-9, "How to Escape from a Leper Colony")
The collection did fall a little short for me in cohesion. Despite sharing a setting and theme, the collection felt disjointed as a whole to me, which is a clear indication of my lack of fondness for the art form. On their own, I think I would have enjoyed the stories more.

The verdict: While the collection wasn't a home run for me, short story lovers will delight. This collection also will appeal to fans of international fiction. Regardless, Tiphanie Yanique is an impressive young talent, and I hope she turns her eyes to a novel next.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Length: 240 pages
Publication date: March 2, 2010
Source:  my local public library

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Friday, October 29, 2010

book review: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures: A NovelThe backstory: I've read and enjoyed all of Tracy Chevalier's historical fiction novels about real people (Falling Angels,  the story of Emmaline Pankhurst and the British suffrage movement is my favorite), so I was excited to read her most recent novel.

The basics: Remarkable Creatures is the story of two female fossil collectors in the 1800's: Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. The two women become friends after Elizabeth and her two other single sisters move from London to Lyme, England when their brother marries.

My thoughts: Tracy Chevalier makes history come alive. I knew nothing of Mary of Elizabeth when the novel began, but I quickly became engrossed in their stories. The women take turns narrating alternating chapters, but I found myself enjoying Elizabeth's story so much more than Mary. I enjoyed Mary more in the chapters Elizabeth narrated than when I saw the world through her eyes.

While the novel is the story of these two women, it's also a fascinating exploration of a world struggling to rectify its religious beliefs with increasingly strong evidence of fossils of extinct creatures. The novel explored the city of Lyme, the joys and struggles of fossil hunting, the realities of women who do not marry in the early 1800's, and the compelling conflicts that can challenge both science and religion. 
"I had discovered from conversations I’d had about fossils with the people of Lyme that few wanted to delve into unknown territory, preferring to hold on to their superstitions and leave unanswerable questions to God’s will rather than find a reasonable explanation that might challenge previous thinking. Hence they would rather call this animal a crocodile than consider the alternative: that it was the body of a creature that no longer existed in the world. This idea was too radical for most to contemplate. Even I, who considered myself open-minded, was a little shocked to be thinking it, for it implied that God did not plan out what He would do with all of the animals He created. If He was willing to sit back and let creatures die out, what did that mean for us? Were we going to die out too? Looking at that skull with its huge, ringed eyes, I felt as if I were standing on the edge of a cliff. It was not fair to bring Mary to the edge with me."

I began this novel while vacationing on Cape Cod earlier this month, and it was the perfect setting for this book that takes place by the sea. As usual, Tracy Chevalier has turned a compelling historical setting into an immensely readable knowledge. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, but I do think I would have loved it even more if Elizabeth Philpot were the only narrator.

The verdict: Like the best of historical fiction, Remarkable Creatures offers an honest look at the time the novel is set in as well as revelations for the modern reader about our world.

Rating: 4.25 stars (out of 5)
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: The paperback came out October 26, 2010
Source: I received this book for review from the publisher

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Waiting on Wednesday: The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

The Tiger's Wife: A NovelWaiting on Wednesday is hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine to highlight an upcoming release we can't wait to read.

My pick this week is The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht. This summer, the New Yorker named Tea Obreht one of their 20 Under 40. This month, the National Book Award Foundation listed The Tiger's Wife as one of their 5 Under 35 picks.

Novelists are already praising her too. Colum McCann, who won the National Book Award in 2009 says, "Tea Obreht is the most thrilling literary discovery in years." Ann Patchett calls her "tremendously talented." T.C. Boyle says The Tiger's Wife is "a novel of surpassing beauty, exquisitely wrought and magical.  Téa Obreht is a towering new talent."

Here's the publisher's description:

The time: the present. The place: a Balkan country ravaged by years of conflict. Natalia, a young doctor, is on a mission of mercy to an orphanage when she receives word of her beloved grandfather’s death far from their home under circumstances shrouded in confusion. Remembering childhood stories her grandfather once told her, Natalia becomes convinced that he spent his last days searching for "the deathless man," a vagabond who claimed to be immortal. As Natalia struggles to understand why her grandfather, a deeply rational man, would go on such a farfetched journey, she stumbles across a clue that leads her to the extraordinary story of the tiger’s wife.

An involving mystery, an emotionally riveting family story, and a wondrous evocation of an unfamiliar world, is a brilliant novel.
The only bad news: The Tiger's Wife won't be published until March 8, 2011. Only 135 days to go...

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Monday, October 25, 2010

book review: Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel

Stiltsville: A NovelThe backstory: Stiltsville is Susanna Daniel's first novel. It was featured as one of Amazon's August 2010 Best Books of the Month. When I went to read more about it, I discovered an interview with Susanna Daniel and Curtis Sittenfeld, who wrote my favorite book ever, American Wife (my gushing review). They met at the Iowa Writer's workshop, and that was enough of an endorsement for me.

The basics: Stiltsville begins in 1969 when Frances, a young girl from Atlanta, has visited Miami for a wedding and meets Dennis. Each chapter takes place in a different year (in chronological order) of Dennis and Frances's marriage.

My thoughts: Susanna Daniel's writing captured me from the beginning. I saw a lot of myself in Frances, despite the difference in time and place. I was prepared for the novel to move forward in time, but I thought each year would get its own chapter. The first big jump concerned me, but it worked wonderfully well. There was never a moment of disorientation. Thanks in part to confident foreshadowing, there were both Frances's honest emotions at the time and a more mature perspective. I always felt as though Frances was telling the story of the time at that time, but when those moments of wisdom and glimpses of the future came, I welcomed their ability to add even more dimension to the characters and story.

Stiltsville is not just the story of this marriage. The years Daniel allows the reader to glimpse into the lives of Frances and Dennis are mostly crucial years in Miami history. It is as much a novel about how events shape one's life and memory as it is a novel about marriage. I'm a huge fan of historical fiction, and some of my favorite parts of this novel were the historical elements. I was not familiar with most of the events in this novel, but I looked into several of them while reading Stiltsville

The verdict: It's the most emotionally engaging novel I've read in quite some time. I often struggle writing reviews for books I adore, and I found nothing to criticize in Stiltsville. It may not be a universally appealing novel, but it has become one of my favorites, and I eagerly await Susanna Daniel's next novel.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: August 1, 2010
Source: my local public library

The interview with Susanna Daniel and Curtis Sittenfeld is delightful, but I wouldn't recommend reading the first half of it before you read Stiltsville if you are at all averse to spoilers.

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sunday Salon: Book Polygamy

In the past two weeks, I've finished two books, which is fewer than I usually read. Despite only finishing two books, I've actually been reading more. I haven't been in a reading rut at all, and in fact the two books I have finished both earned five star ratings (the books: So Much for That by Lionel Shriver and Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel - review coming tomorrow.) What gives? I'm currently reading eight books. Yes, eight.

How did it happen? I'm not quite sure, but it's actually working for me. The impetus has been a variety of things: library due dates, convenience and mood. Most peculiarly, all of these books have been rocking my reading world. I seem to be suffering from premature separation anxiety, and it's keeping me from finishing books. Here's what has been competing for my attention these past two weeks:
Girls on the Verge: Debutante Dips, Drive-bys, and Other InitiationsThe Finkler QuestionGreat House: A NovelAn Elegy for Easterly: Stories
Remarkable Creatures: A NovelHow to Escape from a Leper Colony: A Novella and StoriesFinding NoufVery Valentine: A Novel
  • Girls on the Verge by Vendela Vida - I adored Vida's latest novel The Lovers, and her non-fiction exploration of the rituals American girls use to form their adult identity. It's lovely.
  • The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson - I didn't finish reading it before the Booker Prize winner was announced, but the little bit I have read has been wonderful. I adore Jacobson's writing, and I'm hoping to shift my focus to this one soon.
  • Great House by Nicole Krauss - I'm working my way through the National Book Award for Fiction finalists, and this one is off to a wonderful start. I'm choosing to savor it in small sections so far.
  • An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award this year is a wonderful collection of short stories, and I'm reading one each day.
  • Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier - Tracy Chevalier is a writer I've enjoyed for years. I started reading this historical novel about fossil collectors while vacationing on Cape Cod a few weeks ago, and I'm still enjoying it in little bits.
  • How to Escape from a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique - a one-week only check-out from the library made this one jump to the top of my pile. It was named one of the 5 under 35 by the National Book Foundation, and I'm enjoying reading these short stories too.
  • Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris - I'm still on a mystery kick, and this one is lovely. Somehow I'm managing to savor it instead of rush through, and that's a testament to Ferraris's writing.
  • Very Valentine by Adriana Trigiani - I'm listening to this one on audio, and it's a fun listen. I'm not the world's biggest audiobook fan, but I'm finding myself driving a lot this semester, and listening to an audiobook has been a good experience. 
The future: While I am enjoying the experience of book polygamy, it's gotten a little out of hand, and I'm starting to make rules about reading more than one at a time.

The new rules:
  • I will let myself read up to four books at one, as long as these categories are observed:
    • non-fiction: non-fiction provides a nice alternative to fiction, my favorite genre, but I like to read non-fiction in small does.
    • short stories: I'm expanding my love of novels and actively seeking out short stories. I enjoy reading collections one story a day.
    • audio: I'm pleasantly surprised how much I'm enjoying an audiobook, and I hope to continue keeping one going at all times.
    • novel:first and foremost, I've a novel lover, but I want to revert to only reading one at a time so I have maximum enjoyment and focus on details.
Now tell me, do you like to read more than one book at a time? Do you have rules for it?

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Friday, October 22, 2010

book review: So Much for That by Lionel Shriver

So Much for That: A NovelThe backstory: So Much for That is a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award for Fiction.

The basics: When So Much for That came out in March, I remember hearing it was a novel about health insurance. And it is, but like most great novels, it's more about humanity. Shep has dreamed and saved since he was eighteen for the "After Life." Moved by a mission trip he took as a teen, he wanted to live in a poorer country on a few dollars a day. Each summer, he and his family take a research trip to a possible location. He's lived simply, paid for everything in advance and is ready to make the move when his wife is diagnosed with caner.

My thoughts: Although the novel is told in both the voice of Shep and his long-time best friend Jackson, it still felt like Shep's story to me. Perhaps it was because his story is the first one in the book or perhaps because it was simply more compelling to me. In some ways the novel was quite political, but Shriver deftly made all sides of the story understandable. It is a political novel, but it doesn't necessarily have its own agenda, which is refreshing. Although I was captured by the book's subject and characters from the beginning, it wasn't a book I truly loved until the end. So Much for That is a novel that takes the reader on a journey, and it was a journey I didn't expect. Shriver writes with patience and restraint, and this novel truly is bigger than the sum of its parts.

As I read it, I longed to discuss it with someone else. This book is ripe for discussion and would be ideal for book clubs.

The verdict: So Much for That is both timely and timeless. This novel may age in fascinating ways as the U.S. healthcare system changes, but it will remain a brilliantly nuanced character study that also examines contemporary public health policy and politics.

National Book Award thoughts: It's the first fiction finalist I've read this year, but I would celebrate its victory.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 448 pages
Publication date: March 1, 2010
Source: my local public library

Have you enjoyed other Lionel Shriver books? Which of her backlist should I read first?

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Monday, October 11, 2010

book review: A Bad Day for Sorry by Sophie Littlefield

A Bad Day for Sorry: A Crime NovelThe backstory: A Bad Day for Sorry was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel written by an American Author in 2010.

The basics: Stella, a much larger woman than the one depicted on the book cover, is a fifty-year-old widow living in rural Missouri. She owns a sewing machine shop and repair store. She's a widow; she killed her long-time abusive husband. Stella also runs a side business where she threatens (and uses force) against men who have mistreated the women in their lives to scare them straight.

My thoughts: Sophie Littlefield has created a memorable character in Stella and an unusual, but compelling mystery story. The mystery part of this novel involves the search for Tucker, the 18-month-old son of Stella's newest client, Chrissy. Stella doesn't play by the rules of law, but she does have a crush on the sheriff, so he pops up from time to time. This premise could easily veer into stereotypical or ridiculous territory, but Stella's sassiness and sweetness are beautifully mixed with raw humanity and honesty. Littlefield manages to interject serious issues of domestic violence with humor and never lets her characters become one-dimensional.

While Stella and I are worlds apart, I enjoyed reading about her life. Littlefield captured the quirkiness of rural Missouri beautifully.

The verdict: A Bad Day for Sorry is funny, quirky, suspenseful, and original. It's sure to delight mystery fans and fans of Southern fiction. The second Stella Hardesty novel, A Bad Day for Pretty, was published June 8, 2010.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Length: 279 pages
Publication date: it's out in paperback now
Source: my local public library

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