Book Hounds' Journal|
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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in
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|Tuesday, March 24th, 2009|
|Sunday, February 15th, 2009|
|Sunday, February 8th, 2009|
|Monday, January 19th, 2009|
New year. I'm still going to count even though I don't really have any goals.
The only goal I can think of is taking on the whole Tolkein library. Is that too nuts? Anyone here done it?
1) The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction by David Quammen
~ A great read on why some critters appear on some islands and not on others. That's simplifying it greatly, it's an enthralling read.
2) The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman
~ Ok crime fiction set on an indian reservation. Wasn't too sure if I was going to continue with the series but was talked into trying the next one so I may.
3) American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon by Steven Rinella
~ An absolutely FABOO book. The author wins a tag to hunt for a wild buffalo in Alaska and while he prepares and scouts he also takes you on a journey in the past from the evolution of the beast to it's near extinction. Rinella comes across as a straighforward, intelligent and very honest writer. Highly recommended.
|Monday, January 12th, 2009|
Review - Iodine; Haven Kimmel
Fiction; Contemporary Literature
I picked this to review for the Amazon Vine program because the synopsis was so intriguing in its reference to a young woman struggling with psychosis, but I may have gotten more than I bargained for in the end.
I knew it would be dark, and indeed it was. The protagonist begins as Trace Pennington, a literally-starving university student (psychology, no less) who lives in an abandoned house with her dog and a pile of journals. A few interactions indicate that may be in hiding, although it’s not clear from who or what although glimpses of a horrific past come to light when least expected. As the story progresses she becomes Ianthe, and it’s never entirely clear if this is a purposeful change in identity in order to continue hiding, or if she’s actually a multiple personality. Perhaps a combination of the two, because there is so much blurring of the lines of lucidity here that if the reader can’t tell, maybe it’s because the writer can’t either.
The author weaves ‘dream journal’ segments into the narrative, but both the journal and the story itself are so rambling and discordant that it becomes impossible to ferret out what is real and what is not. Was the dog real or a figment of imagination from the past? What DID happen between Trace and her beloved (too beloved) father? What actually happened to her brother Billy? Did she even have a brother? As Ianthe, she becomes involved with one of her professors and even marries him….I think. It’s really not clear. The passages where Trace visits her old friend Candy, who is being horrifically beaten on a daily basis by whom we assume is her husband but she claims is an alien (yes, you read that correctly), are compelling but ultimately confusing and unfinished.
I was able – I think – to get glimpses of truth here and there, but it was like picking sand out of the carpet and although that was probably the author’s intent, in the end I was left dissatisfied. I haven’t read anything by this young author before, but I’ve heard that her previous novel, A Girl Named Zippy, was very well-received and of a completely different nature than this dark and complex tale. Kimmel obviously has tremendous potential and talent, and that’s what leaves me more frustrated than anything. She seems to have a perception of people, especially in the surreal world of academia, that is dead-on, and her skill at bringing that out on paper is stunning and alone is almost worth the read. Even just a fractionally more lucid offering from her would be welcome. I do appreciate what she was trying to do here; I just didn’t care for it as much as I would have if it had been structured a little more cleanly.
I’m right in the Goldilocks middle on this one. I can’t recommend it heartily due to my reservations about its lack of cohesion and clarity, but it was interesting and Kimmel does have a compelling style I’d like to see more of.
|Monday, January 5th, 2009|
Review - A Perfect Arrangement; Suzanne Berne
A Perfect Arrangement
Fiction; Contemporary Literature
Having recently made a decision to cut down on the meaningless, middle-of-the-road stuff I’d been glutting on for too long, this was one that had been sitting in the queue for awhile and was ALMOST tossed into the donate pile because I thought it had far too much of a ‘throwaway’ vibe about it. But I had two weeks off for the holidays and had time to clear the stack a bit before the new year, so I went ahead and dipped in. I’m VERY glad I did, because it was a complete and very pleasant surprise.
The synopsis for this book is really a little misleading, in my opinion. Not that it’s incorrect; it just doesn’t give a well-rounded idea of the scope. On the face of it the story appears to be yet another cautionary tale about a young-ish, successful yuppie couple who hire an au pair who isn’t the person she claims to be, in more ways than one. I know – yawn alert! It sounds like a typical setup for a “Hand that Rocks the Cradle” type horror novel, and I had no interest in that at all. However, I’m glad I gave it a chance because this novel is far more layered and complex than that.
While it’s true that Randi, the au pair Mirella and Howard hire to care for their two young children, is not being truthful about who she is and where she comes from and there is definitely a lurking sense of danger prevalent throughout the story, the genius of the storytelling here is in the examination of a marriage that itself is not what it appears. Few marriages are, and maybe that’s the message we ultimately take from it. Everyone has secrets, big and small, and sacrifices are made whether we want to make them or not, or whether we even acknowledge them. Perhaps without fully realizing it, each person brings into the relationship their own deeply-seated ideas of what life should be, what a home should look like, what a house should contain, how children should be raised, how we judge ourselves and our spouses through our own lens and then through the lenses of others, and what we allow others to see. It takes a lot of energy to maintain every part of that machinery, be it calculated or genuine, and what happens when all of those feelings and ideas clash irrevocably?
There is no neat wrap-up at the end, but rather, a sense that something has been both lost and gained, or at least possible to gain. Howard and Mirella are at times infuriatingly flawed and heartbreakingly real.
I had not heard of Suzanne Berne before, but I am VERY impressed and will look for more from her. I know she has several novels in her backlist.
|Friday, January 2nd, 2009|
|Wednesday, December 31st, 2008|
I read so much in a year’s time that it’s easy to lose track of everything that excited or moved me in some way over the course of those twelve months, so I thought I’d do a summary of 2008.
In a way it was a wondrous and watershed year for me, not only because I ventured out beyond my normal reading preferences, but because that venturing out actually changed the way I read. It didn’t happen right away, but in twelve months my reading habits, needs and perceptions have altered profoundly. I can also thank the Amazon Vine program for that. My only intention in the beginning was to expand my range and read a wider group of authors and subjects, and in the end that manifested into two decisions:
1) I no longer have any tolerance for inferior books, bad writing, or even just mediocre writing. To put it crudely, I’m not wasting another second of my time on crap. Crap is subjective, obviously, so I won’t go into a dissertation of what I think defines it.
2) I want to cut down on the number of books I read and concentrate more on quality and absorption. I plowed through 106 books this year. 106! One might be tempted to admire such a feat, but don’t. There was a lot of chaff mixed in with that wheat. At least it taught me to fine-tune my nose for what will be good reading.
My reading tends to break down into about 40% classic lit, 40% contemporary lit, 10% genre and 10% non-fiction. I won’t list the titles of everything I read this year, obviously. Anyone interested in putting themselves to sleep with all my book reviews can find them here: http://bloody-keri.livejournal.com/tag/book+reviews
A brief summary:
Classic Lit: I always re-read a lot of classics but this year I finally discovered D.H. Lawrence, W. Somerset Maugham, Sylvia Plath and Edith Wharton, and am incredibly grateful for having done so. There really aren’t strong enough words to express how deeply affected I was by Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Of Human Bondage, The Bell Jar and The Age of Innocence, and I count them among the most meaningful books I’ve ever read in my life.
Contemporary Lit: I tried to read a mix of ‘popular’ fic (bestseller stuff) and the lesser-known literary releases, Booker, National Book Award and Pulitzer contenders. As to be expected – and this is at least partly what I mean by not tolerating bad books anymore – a lot of the bestseller stuff was forgettable and time-wasting, for me. The literary selections yielded better gains, obviously, and in at least four situations a quality literary novel actually found its way to the bestseller list, like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society, The Road and The Gathering. Those were rare gems and I’m heartened to see them getting wide recognition. My experience has long been that quality literature and bestseller lists rarely converge. Maybe that’s finally changing.
Genre Fic: For lighter reading I tend to pick up cozy mysteries, suspense and supernatural thrillers, although I’m reading far less of it these days. 2009 will probably not see a lot of genre reading as I try to get away from that for a little while and delve into deeper stuff, but I’m sure I’ll take a break sometimes and grab an Agatha Christie or a Cat Who book, re-read a Barbara Michaels / Elizabeth Peters here and there. Most of the forays I made into new releases in these genres were overwhelmingly disappointing. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like the quality of the writing in the genres is being eroded a little further every day.
So that’s the nutshell. Overall, it was a great reading year because I pushed myself to get out of a ‘reading rut’ and the result was a total sea change in the way I read and what I want and expect in books from now on. There is something about a good book that makes me feel like I’ve been given a precious, wonderful gift, and I want to give myself that gift as often as possible.
I hope everyone had a fruitful reading year and that things will be even more diverse and interesting in 2009.
|Sunday, December 28th, 2008|
Review - The Spare Room; Helen Garner
The Spare Room
Fiction; Contemporary Literature
Picked this one to review for the Amazon Vine program. I've never heard of Helen Garner and apparently this is her first fiction in quite a while - 15 years or so, I think - but she's one I'll be on the lookout for in the future. This is a beautiful, haunting novel that feels like a rare jewel in that way some books do. It's too brief, and that's the first compliment I give it, a rare one given the simple yet devastating subject matter: a woman caring for a friend who is dying in the last stages of cancer. Not something I would normally want to dig into for too long and generally, the more abbreviated the better. Death is easy; the process of dying is one of those unspeakable things; the enormous white elephant in the room. Many writers have touched it, some with more success than others, but I don't think any book I've read on the subject captures the jarring mix of comedy, love and grief this one does.
The very first chapter begins sweetly and powerfully with a quote from fellow Australian writer Elizabeth Jolley: "It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone else will sleep." Helen (although this is put out as a novel, the protagonist is named Helen and the story is told in the first person, so I do wonder if it's more fact than fiction) is lovingly setting up her spare room for her friend Nicola, pondering carefully over every element: would Nicola prefer the flat pillow or the bulky one? Was she allergic to feathers? Should there be a rug? What if she caught a toe in it and fell? She's dying - does a dying woman want a mirror nearby or not? Would she want to see herself? But what if she's insulted because a mirror was conspicuously absent?
An independent, eccentric free spirit who has never married or had children, Nicola has a small circle of friends she's turning to for help, and that's how Helen sees herself - as one link in the chain of care, because no one can take it all. The heart-rending issue is that Nicola is valiantly and ferociously fighting off death, and it's painfully obvious to everyone but her that the end is very, very near. Her refusal to accept it, on any level, creates a tension around her so tight and riddled with anger and grief that you can feel it in every word. The world of conventional medicine will no longer treat her except for hospice care, so she has glommed on desperately to every bit of holistic theory, from the legitimate to utter quackery, with the kind of blind cheerfulness a person in complete denial must adopt. "It's just the toxins being flushed out," she reassures Helen over and over again, bent double by the latest vitamin C infusion, in a voice ravaged by pain and depletion. The confrontation will have to come, and the agony is not knowing when or how. For Helen, the nights are the longest. Nicola's denial is exhausting. Sympathy from others, for Helen, is even worse. "It weakened me. A huge wave of fatigue rinsed me from head to foot. I was afraid I would slide off the bench and measure my length among the cut roses. At the same time a chain of metallic thoughts went clanking through my mind, like the first dropping of an anchor: death will not be denied. To try is grandiose. It drives madness into the soul. It leaches out virtue. It injects poison into friendship, and makes a mockery of love."
Reviewers and fellow authors, including Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones; Lucky) are already calling it the perfect novel, deceptively conversational yet brimming with an almost otherworldly grace. It's not the kind of book that will shoot to the top of the bestseller lists, and frankly, it's too good for that.
The Spare Room will be released in the U.S. in February 2009 and for my money is not one to be missed.
Review - The Wizard's Daughter; Barbara Michaels
The Wizard’s Daughter
Written early in Michaels’ (aka Elizabeth Peters) career during her gothic phase, she allegedly later said she was slightly embarrassed by the handful of books she produced in this genre. She did find more of a niche in the modern-day supernatural mystery, but I still find these period pieces of hers a lot of fun and definitely enjoy re-reading them every few years.
In what was a typical plot of the genre, this story features a young female protagonist, Marianne, who finds herself destitute and at the mercy of strangers upon the death of her beloved Scottish father, the Squire Ransome. At first intending to find a situation as a companion or governess, Marianne first finds herself duped into singing for her supper at a gentleman’s club that she is too young and naïve to know for what it really is, which is a kind of storehouse for mistresses. In dramatically Dickensian fashion she is almost the hapless victim of one particularly aggressive patron, but soon after is discovered by the elderly Duchess of Devenbrook, a rich and childless noblewoman who is utterly convinced that Marianne is actually the love-child of the Duchess’ dear friend, the legendary medium David Holmes, who disappeared mysteriously and presumably died many years before. As a result Marianne is essentially adopted by the Duchess and begins living a life of luxury, for which she feels terribly guilty, not helped by the fact that the two men closest to the Duchess, her physician and her attorney, are convinced that Marianne is a conniving fraud.
There’s a catch to the Duchess’ largesse, naturally, because since she’s convinced that Marianne has inherited Holmes’ psychic powers (whom Marianne doesn’t believe for an instant is actually her father), she wants Marianne to try and reach David in that realm beyond the grave via a series of séances. Marianne is dismayed by the idea but it seems to mean so much to the Duchess that she can’t refuse her, and indeed some very strange and frightening things do happen when the séances take place, things that Marianne doesn’t understand and can’t explain. Given that she also has the local hot-boy vicar as well as her old guardian warning her of the evil, satanic nature of these events, Marianne’s nerves are a little frazzled.
This is gothica-lite suspense done fairly well, I think, more than a match for the other queens of that genre, like Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt (love both of them, too, especially Whitney). Definitely nothing for Michaels to be embarrassed about! I really enjoyed reading it again after many years.
|Saturday, December 27th, 2008|
Review - The Cat Who Turned On and Off; Lilian Jackson Braun
The Cat Who Turned On and Off
Lilian Jackson Braun
Third in the series. Qwill is still toiling at the Daily Fluxion, and after disappointment at the last two unglamorous assignments he’s pumped about competing for a prize in the paper’s yearly writing contest.
A passing remark from a cabdriver one evening perks his interest in a part of town he knows almost nothing about, so he decides to check it out. Referred to as “Junktown”, it sounds to Qwill like he’s going to run into the local ghetto, but instead is fascinated when it actually turns out to be a treasure trove of small antique shops. Changing his place of residence seems to be a habit with Qwill these days, and he takes a room in one of the shops’ owners’ home – packing Koko and Yum Yum along, of course. When he learns that the previous tenant died under mysterious circumstances and then another Junktown dealer appears to have a freakish accident, the old moustache starts a-twitching.
Always fun, and I’m really enjoying going through these in order as well as reading these early ones for the first time.
|Friday, December 26th, 2008|
Review - Naked Once More; Elizabeth Peters
Naked Once More
When writer Kathleen Darcy mysteriously disappeared seven years ago after publishing a hugely successful historical novel, ‘Naked in the Ice’, it was determined that suicide was the likely outcome although her body was never found. Now that she has been declared legally dead, her heirs, agent and publisher are launching a search for someone to write the much-anticipated sequel. Author Jacqueline Kirby, the series protagonist Peters first introduced to us in The Seventh Sinner, easily lands the job.
Jacqueline, sardonic and bitingly charming as ever (think of an alligator in a pink dress, maybe) temporarily relocates to Kathleen’s rural digs – the center of her writing life as well as the site of her disappearance – and finds a lot more than she bargained for after moving into Kathleen’s cozy cottage. Not only do Kathleen’s mooching siblings and half-crazy mother (who all live in a grand estate paid for by Kathleen’s earnings) present an unexpected obstacle, but local characters in town seem to have a vested interest in how the final chapter of Kathleen’s life plays out. Right from the beginning Jacqueline finds herself drawn deeply into the real-life mystery of Kathleen Darcy herself and what really happened to her - which, oddly enough, no one else seems to be all that interested in.
I’ve read this a couple of times over the years, so I listened to it on audiobook through my account with audible.com. Most of Peters/Michaels’ books are narrated by one particular actress, Barbara Rosenblatt, who embodies the voices so well that I’ve come to think of her as Peters/Michaels herself. Peters only wrote five Kirby books, which is unfortunate because they’re among her best. It seems very obvious to me that the character of Jacqueline Kirby is at least a partial self-portrait of Peters/Michaels/Mertz (she even refers to herself at one point, when going through a mental list of authors who were cat fanciers: ‘Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Barbara Michaels…’, which made me smile. Her intelligent humor and excellently fleshed-out characters make these books genuine pleasures to read (or listen to) over and over again.
|Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008|
by Varlam Shalamov, translated by John Glad
"In 1937, Varlam Shalamov was arrested by the Soviet Secret Police for the crime of declaring that the Nobel Prize Laureate, Ivan Bunin, was a 'classic author' of Russian literature. Shalamov spent seventeen years in the Kolyma region of northeastern Siberia -- an area where three million people are estimated to have been murdered..."
"One of the calmest and most terrifying reports on the Gulag Archipelago by a survivor." -- Andrei Amalrik
I'd like to say something witty and insightful about this disturbing collection of short stories, but all I can do is suggest you read them. This is a more resigned, more hopeless version of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" beautifully written and capable of draining any hope and light from your soul. Yeah, I liked it. Current Mood: artistic
Review - The Secret History of Moscow; Ekaterina Sedia
The Secret History of Moscow
Fiction; Urban Fantasy
Russian urban fantasy is not normally my thing, but Sony was offering this free as a promotion on the E-Reader site, so I went ahead and downloaded it. Surprisingly, I quite liked it. It’s certainly different from anything I’ve read before, and not just because it’s fantasy, which I don’t read much of although I make the occasional foray.
The story is told from several characters’ points of view, but I’d say the primary character is Galina, a young woman in post-Soviet Russia who is working as a medical translator after her release from a mental institution for a vague form of schizophrenia that may or may not have been a complete fabrication by authorities under the old Soviet rule. Living in a dingy Moscow apartment with her mother and pregnant sister, Galina half-assumes her mental illness has returned when her sister locks herself in the bathroom, gives birth to the child, and then somehow disappears through a small window several stories from the ground. The only thing left is a black bird sitting on the windowsill, and Galina tries very hard NOT to believe that the bird is her sister – not to mention that suggesting such a thing to anyone could land her right back in the sanitarium - but can’t fight the certainty that it is.
From here she’s led to several others who are also having odd, inexplicable experiences involving mysterious birds, and portals into an underworld that can pose as anything from an illusory doorway to a puddle of oily water in an alley. The other people she meets and travels with to this underworld are Yakov, a policeman investigating the strange disappearances and himself a reluctant witness to a man who appears to actually turn into a bird, and Fyodor, a homeless artist with a dark past who takes Galina and Yakov through one of the portals.
In the strange world beneath we meet a fascinating cast of creatures and characters from Russian myths and legends, who are concerned about what is happening “up above”, because never before have people been able to pass so easily into the underworld except in death. Something is awry, and while on a literal journey through a strange and beautiful wood, across a Stygian-esque river and into other magical, mysterious places to learn what’s happened to cause this unnatural aperture and also try to find their way back, Galina in particular is on a mission to find her missing sister, whom she can hear calling to her for help in the half-light of her dreams.
The author is a Russian native now living in New Jersey, and I think this is her second or third novel. It is not a translation as far as I can tell, although she may have written a Russian version as well. Although the story drags slightly every so often, for the most part it is beautifully told. Sedia has a beautiful, unique sense of language and style and I would definitely read more from her.
|Monday, December 22nd, 2008|
Review - The White Tiger; Aravind Adiga
The White Tiger
Fiction; Contemporary Literature
This book was the 2008 winner of the Man Booker Prize, and its black, sardonic humor belies the shocking theme: that of a lowly servant who murders his employer and runs away with his money (not a spoiler; that’s the book jacket’s synopsis).
The story is told in the first person as Balram Halwai writes a series of letters, each titled “The First Night”, “The Second Night”, etc., to the Premier of China, whose much-publicized upcoming visit to India inspires Balram to spill his guts to someone he thinks might appreciate what he’s been through. Balram calls himself a “social entrepreneur”, having taken his destiny into his own hands by a violence he himself deplores and is struggling to explain to himself as much as to the Premier.
Adiga’s detailed description of the caste system in India is profoundly disturbing, all the more so for its continued existence today. The poor are so shockingly so that they live in conditions far worse than any animal, their fates laid out for them in a predestined, hellish cycle of poverty and misery. In Balram’s caste and family, the very best a man can hope for is to live as an enslaved servant to a richer family. One wonders how any human being can even maintain the will to live in the environment Adiga describes.
As dark as it sounds, I didn’t find it as depressing as it could have been. Adiga tells the story with such darkly comedic talent that you tend to forget the underlying outcome, although the abysmal conditions of Balram’s life are never far from the surface. But what a talent this writer is! I really felt as if I were reading a firsthand account of Balram’s life; that I’d picked these letters up somewhere and become privy to one man’s unique, incredible story. Balram himself is such an intriguing, humorous and yes, even endearing character that you can’t help but like him even though you know what he’s going to do.
I had trouble putting it down once I started it, and will definitely read it again. It’s a rich and unsettling tale that made such an impression on me that I dreamed about it two nights in a row.
|Sunday, December 21st, 2008|
|Friday, December 19th, 2008|
Review - The Princes of Ireland: The Dublin Saga, Part I; Edward Rutherfurd
The Princes of Ireland: The Dublin Saga, Part I
Famous for his sweeping historical epics (Sarum, London, The Forest, et al) that aim to tell the history of a land or people via a fictional narrative, Rutherfurd delivers here the first of his two-volume chronicle of the land named for the ancient Celtic goddess Eriu – Ireland, the Emerald Isle.
It begins in 430 A.D. with the fictional, ill-fated love story of Dierdre and Conall, in the time of the Druids just before the dawn of christianity. Given what little and conflicting information historians have about the Druids, ancient Celts and this period in history, what Rutherfurd does put together is a lovely mystical snapshot of ancient Ireland, the sacred land of Tara and its people. It may be the best part of the book, actually.
On to the story of St. Patrick and the coming of the Vikings, the legend of King Brian Boru, and of course the inevitable domination by the English, who would waste no time trying to stamp out everything that was Irish – language, music and even clothing. Same treatment they delivered to the Scots. I’m sure the Irish didn’t anticipate that in the beginning, but it soon proved to be the case when Rome and England became blood brothers in politics and religion. No one could fight that two-headed monster. It’s a moot point now, I suppose, but I wonder how many lives were destroyed as the Irish were forced to help the English fight their battles, from the Wars of the Roses to Henry VIII’s split with the church and on down the line. I suppose I’m making my Irish roots obvious here, and it has to be admitted the Irish were often too busy fighting amongst themselves to pose the united front that would have had any chance against the English machine. I’m actually quite the Anglophile for the most part, but I do think it’s tragic that Ireland missed a golden opportunity to join with the Scots in the 14th century in rising up against the English, as they did do from time to time but never on a large-scale, definitive basis. It probably would have been for naught in the end, but who knows? One does wonder how things MIGHT have turned out. Of course it’s all in the past and Ireland is a wonderful place just as she is, and at this late date the English element is as inseparable from the land and culture of Ireland as the Vikings.
I’m making it sound like this book is all about fighting and it’s not, although war both civil and foreign is an unavoidable part of Irish history. At any rate, Rutherfurd uses portraits of both historical and fictional characters, loosely tied together in the same families and using some of the famous names to come down through history – O’Neills, O’Byrnes, O’Briens, Fitzgeralds, Doyles, et al - to move the narrative through the centuries. It was interesting and held my attention throughout, no mean feat given the 800-page length, but I have to admit that I was not quite as impressed by Rutherfurd’s writing as I thought I’d be. I’ve read numerous praising reviews of his books, so I was expecting to be wowed. I guess my expectations were too high because although I drank in the historical facts, names and explanations of the rather unique political and social structure, the actual storytelling aspect fell a little short. It did not come off with the skill of, say, a Margaret George. It seemed a little stilted and awkward, very unlike what one would expect of such a respected and seasoned writer. I think it would have been a better book altogether had he just written it as a straight historical text. Still, it couldn’t have been bad because as mentioned it did hold my attention all the way through, and I plan to start the second volume, The Rebels of Ireland, after the new year.
|Thursday, December 18th, 2008|
Review - Shakespeare's Kitchen; Lore Segal
Fiction; Contemporary Literature
Lore Segal is one of those uber-cerebral obscure writers beloved in literary circles but almost utterly unknown to the masses, even when this much-anticipated novel was shortlisted for the 2008 Pulitzer.
What began as an ongoing series of short stories in The New Yorker about an east coast academic chronicling her years spent at a Connecticut think tank and mingling in that rarefied atmosphere finally evolved into a novel, broken into thick chunks of time spanning several decades. The stories center around Ilka, the protagonist, and the many days and evenings she spends with the institute’s director, Leslie Shakespeare, and his wife Eliza. Philosophy, literature, minor academic intrigues and rivalries are drilled down to the banal, proving that no matter how smart you and the people you surround yourself with are, life plays out pretty much the same way for us all: you talk, drink, eat, gossip, love, betray and die.
It’s an interesting exercise in minutiae, I think, and the dialogue is compelling. It took a little while to get going in a particular direction, but when it did I was intrigued, particularly by the way things develop between Ilka and the Shakespeares. It’s very much a minimalist, snapshot take on things so if the reader looks for a fully-fleshed out cast of characters they will likely be disappointed. I didn’t develop any particular affection for any of the characters, but I don’t think that was the author’s intent anyway. I did enjoy it. The skill is definitely in the detail and observation of day-to-day existence in this little society of intellectuals who end up being just people, after all.
|Tuesday, December 16th, 2008|
Review - The Jewel of Seven Stars; Bram Stoker
The Jewel of Seven Stars
Fiction; Horror / Suspense
None of Bram Stoker’s written works ever received the same attention and acclaim as his famous Dracula (one of my all-time favorite horror novels), including this 1903 tale of Egyptian mummies, mysticism and mystery, which is a shame because it’s a really fun and decent example of the Victorian ‘sensation’ mystery that was so popular during this era, a la Wilkie Collins and the like. In fact, this book is so similar in style and structure to Collins’ The Moonstone it’s as if Stoker was channeling Collins, whose novels he was known to have admired. With Jewel, Stoker no doubt hoped to cash in on the immense popularity and obsession with all things Egyptian, still raging years after Napoleon’s notorious expedition there.
I really like the narrator in this story. One of the most appealing aspects of that genre to me is the tendency to tell it in the first-person narrative, a trend that has returned to the book world with a vengeance in recent years, I’ve noticed. I do love it when it’s done right, and for some reason I especially favor the male point of view when reading from a first-person perspective.
Young barrister Malcolm Ross is summoned in the middle of the night by Margaret Trelawney, a woman he’d only recently met at a party but had become immediately intrigued by. When Malcolm arrives at the Trelawney estate he finds that Margaret’s father has been stricken by a mysterious coma-like illness and lies in his rooms among the treasure trove of Egyptian artifacts he has collected over the years. He has left very stern but mystifying instructions about what may have happened to him and what Margaret needs to do (and more importantly, what she must NOT do) until, and if, he awakens. Margaret is in despair with worry and has no one she feels she can turn to except Malcolm. When another attack and then a theft takes place the next evening, the doctor and police detective who have also by necessity been called in are inclined to think Margaret herself is the culprit, which Malcolm feels in his heart cannot be true.
Another man soon appears and tells a long, fantastic story about he and Mr. Trelawney in their younger days, which they spent traveling in Egypt and combing tombs, especially that of Queen Tera of the Theban dynasty. This remarkable queen had been a visionary of her day and a powerful sorceress as well, and her knowledge was so feared that upon her death her name was erased from Egyptian history and her tomb in the Valley of the Sorcerers hidden away (this is all fictional as far as I know). But Queen Tera had the magic to allow her to live beyond the grave, and a crucial element of that magic was a great ruby jewel that contained seven stars within, correlating precisely to the constellation under which she was born – the jewel that Mr. Trelawney now has, along with at least part of the knowledge key to unlocking its magic.
Needless to say, Miss T reeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaally doesn’t appreciate the tomb raiders’ sticky fingers all up in her magic bling.
Trelawney isn’t out to rob the great queen, though. Actually, he wants to help her by deciphering the messages and items she left behind to achieve what she wanted most – immortality.
While there’s a good bit of Egyptian lore and mysticism here, there’s also a very healthy dose of philosophy, science, and religion in the discourses between the characters, and I can only imagine how sensational those exchanges must have been to a reading public in that particular era. Stoker’s knowledge of all manner of things mystical and quasi-scientific is pretty impressive, I must say.
Of course I won’t give away the ending, but one of the most interesting trivia bits about this book is that when it was first released in 1903, it was at the reluctance of the publishers because the ending was thought to be too depressing and the chapter on religion a little too controversial for the general reader. They agreed to publish it only because Stoker was fairly well-known by then for Dracula. However, upon seeking re-release of it a few years later, Stoker was told he had to change the ending, as well as remove the one offending chapter completely, or it was a no-go. He agreed, and that watered-down version was the only one available for almost 100 years. I read the original version first, then the revamped ending via the Gutenberg Project online. Both endings are disappointing, frankly! The original ends bleakly and in a hurried, unexplained fashion, and the revamp, while doing a bit more in the ‘finishing out’, left me thinking “well, what was the point?”
Still a fun read, though, and I liked it. Not on par with Dracula by a long shot, but enjoyable.