Monday, April 28, 2008

modern reading, feh

Vellum: The Book of All Hours by Hal Duncan
Rating: 0.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: science fiction/fantasy
Challenges: TBR, A-Z (title)
Review: This book was actually painful to read. I'm not entirely sure why I didn't just put it down. It was like reading modern art or listening to modern music, which, if you're into it, is fine, but if you're not, you just see something meaningless or hear disharmonies, that's only art or music because someone said so. Reading this, I felt like Duncan wrote bits of assorted stories on cards and then shuffled them together and called it a book. Some of the bits are chronological, some of them even make sense. Some involve the same characters, although it's hard to always be sure, since everyone seems to have the same name, or to change names several times. But it's not a narrative. There are bits, no more than a few pages each time that tell a coherent story, and the only reason I give this book even part of a star is because some of these bits are good. If he'd stuck with one of these ideas and fleshed it out, instead of flitting all over the place, Duncan might have had something worth reading.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

too matter of fact?

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: When reading this book, one must keep some distance between oneself and the narrative, to not be overwhelmed by the horrors that are described. Fortunately, the writing style helps the reader maintain this distance. Writing in a very matter of fact style, perhaps even too matter of factly, Beah describes his efforts to avoid getting pulled into the civil war in Sierra Leone and his actions when he is eventually "recruited" to join the army.

The bulk of this book is quite bleak, by necessity. But Beah shows a talent for story-telling throughout, especially in the more hopeful sections of the book, when he describes his life before the civil war struck his village and after his "rehabilitation".

Friday, April 18, 2008

conditions of servitude

Lady's Maid by Margaret Forster
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Challenges: TBR, A-Z (author)
Review: Told from the intriguing perspective of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's maid, Wilson, this book asks us to look at the relationship between the English upper-class and their personal servants in the nineteenth century. Where close bonds can develop, as they do here, what are the obligations of a maid to her mistress, and what are the obligations of a mistress to her maid?

Here, the Brownings (especially Elizabeth) do not necessarily come off well, at some points seeming to deliberately throw up obstacles to the happiness of Mrs. Browning's maid, even though to help her would come at little or no cost to themselves, and would seem to be no more than she deserves after years of loyal and devoted service. But Wilson also makes poor choices; is she relying on the Brownings for their help inappropriately? That she continually chooses her employers over herself and her family is frustrating, as is the Browning's continuing inability to recognize the sacrifices she makes.

The resolution of the book is not entirely satisfactory. After a lengthy, drawn-out process, Wilson more or less accepts that she is on her own and that the Brownings owe her nothing. But it feels more as though she was forced to this realization, rather than coming to it naturally, and showing some growth as a character.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

too much dark, not enough light

Playing with the Grown-Ups by Sophie Dahl
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Summary/Review: The story begins with the ever-dreaded phone call in the middle of the night, summoning Kitty to London because something's happened to her mother. Heavily pregnant herself, Kitty gets on the first flight, and, we think, starts the story from the beginning to demonstrate how she and her family got to the point where her mother lies in the hospital.

As a child, Kitty lived a somewhat idyllic life in the English countryside with her mother, brother, sister, aunts, grandparents, and nanny. Dahl vividly describes her setting, and one can almost feel the warmth of the sun and the breeze.

But Kitty is not destined to remain there. Kitty's mother, Marina, is presented to the reader as someone who does not make the best choices in life. Kitty herself is the product of an affair Marina had as a teenager with a married man. As the story begins, Marina has just found religion, through Swami-ji, the leader of an unnamed cult.

Though benevolent in intention, the effect of the cult on Kitty's family is dramatic. Soon, Kitty is separated from her family and sent to a drab boarding school, while her mother and siblings go to New York. Her mother becomes a successful painter in New York, and after a single school year, decides that Kitty should join her. She does, and it is in New York that Kitty first begins to follow her mother's example in walking on the wild side.

When the family moves back to London (having been rejected by the cult), Kitty's inhibitions seem to stay in New York. Once in London, she falls in with varying crowds, doing drugs, going to wild parties, and the like. From the loose time references we are given in the book, it is the mid-'90s and Kitty is about 14. Not to be overly naive, but she is far too young to be doing the sorts of things she does (I guess that's where the book gets its title), but even worse is that Marina encourages Kitty's behavior, sometimes even joining her at parties, and passing around the drugs. That Marina genuinely loves Kitty makes this picture even more tragic, as it does not ever seem to occur to Marina that her choices and behavior might be destructive to her children. Finally, Marina takes an overdose and is rushed to the hospital. Kitty calls her grandparents, and is finally able to return to their home.

But, although the scene has remained the same, Kitty herself has changed too much to stay there, and decides to go back to boarding school, this time in Connecticut, to make a new start. But here is where the book fails us. Having detailed Kitty's descent, Dahl leaves her redemption to our imagination. We know only that she does manage to make a stable life for herself. Having spent so much time in the dregs with Kitty, it would have been nice if we could have walked with her a bit on her journey up.

Friday, April 4, 2008

love me, love my books

An interesting essay on reading and relationships from the NYTimes Book Review. In my case, taste in books was definitely not a deal-breaker, since my husband hardly reads, and my nervous litany of "I read this" on our first date at a bookstore-cafe didn't keep him from calling me!

best sports to write/read about

Another interesting question posed by Bob Harris at Paper Cuts. This time it's about which sport makes for the best literature. I'm clearly going to have to go with baseball, and suggest Summerland by Michael Chabon, which really makes you understand what it's like to love the game.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

king of the run-on sentence

Aloft by Chang-Rae Lee
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: I guess the point of this book is that it's kind of apathetic and just sort of drifts along with no particular direction. Which is all well and good, except that it doesn't make for a very good read. It's sort of boring and annoying. In this book, all the characters are flat, and rather unlikeable. Due to the first-person narrator, we don't even get much of a sense of the other characters; they're just sort of background-noise to the non-story being told. The effect is that we never really feel connected to the story, and don't really care about any of the characters. Also, our first-person narrator has an extreme tendency to ramble in run-on sentences. As a literary technique, I don't mind this too much, but when the character himself is boring, any little quirk in his voice becomes grating.