Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Discovery of Heaven Readalong - Parts 1 and 2

(warning: the summary below may contain spoilers)

  I've stepped a little bit out of my comfort zone and joined the readalong of The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch, hosted by Iris On Books.  I am sadly not well acquainted with Dutch literature, so despite this book being over 900 pages, I thought this readalong would be a good beginning.
  When I read the introduction, however, I almost stopped before I began.  Two omniscient-type beings (angels?) are discussing the arrangement of certain events to happen in order for the novel's two main characters - Max Delius and Onno Quist - to meet, which is apparently essential for some reason.  I didn't understand this at all, but I kept reading.

  And Max and Onno do meet, seemingly at random on a dark road:  Max stops his car to offer Onno a lift.  After some discussion they realize that they were likely conceived on the same date in 1933 (this seems important based on the introduction) and from that point on the men become virtually inseparable; this despite the fact they have little else in common.  Onno is a linguist of sorts with a dysfunctional relationship with his prominent family; Max is an astronomer and a womanizer, the son of a Jewish mother and a German father who sent the mother (his wife) to her certain death in the camps during World War II.

  Then Max meets Ada, a young cellist, and that is where the story gets interesting.  She's with Max, then with Onno, then she gets pregnant while the three of them are in Cuba.  Either Max or Onno could be the father of her child, but only Onno is unaware of this (at least to this point in the novel).  As Onno claims paternity, he marries Ada and prepares to "settle down" into a life he did not expect.

  BUT, as the three are driving to Leiden to see to Ada's father who has suffered a heart attack, they are caught in a violent storm and a tree falls onto the car, seriously injuring Ada.  She in fact is brain dead and is  kept alive for the sake of her unborn child.  The decision falls then to Onno to how he wants "his" child to be raised; as he is a rising politician and the era is the late 1960s it is not expected for him to take on the responsibility of raising his own child, so various branches of his family tree make their case to be the baby's caregiver.  In another twist, however, Max and Ada's mother, Sophia - who have begun a strange relationship if I do say so myself - offer to raise the child for Onno and he accepts wholeheartedly.

  That's where I am so far in the book, and yes, it does seem really strange when summarized like this.  Yet as a narrative it makes sense.  After that bizarre introduction, there is a story, and though it too is bizarre, it moves along well with enough suspense and twists to keep me reading further.  I can't say that I like any of the characters (yet), although I do find Max the most interesting because at least to this point we know the most about him and his backstory and what he has done to attempt to understand his past. 

And of course though it is set in the Netherlands (with some brief sojourns to Cuba and Eastern Europe so far) by a Dutch writer, I wonder if there is anything else that defines this as a Dutch novel.  If anyone has read this or any other Dutch literature I'd love to hear your thoughts (and recommendations on other books to check out)

Judith at leeswammes is also participating in the readalong:  Read her thoughts on part 1 and part 2.

Monday, May 23, 2011

5 Best Books..... made into a movie

The 5 Best Books meme is hosted by Cassandra at Indie Reader Houston

  This week we are asked to list the 5 best books made into a movie.

  I have to admit that when I first saw this topic I came up blank; but as I let the topic sit and stew in my brain for the day I managed to come up with a fairly good list (if I do say so myself).  There are some on this list I read the book first, others I saw the movie first;  but for all of these both the book and the movie were excellent:

The Green Mile  This might be the only Stephen King novel I've read (I'm too much of a scaredy-cat for his other work) but I loved it and the movie was just wonderful.

Atonement The movie did a great job of capturing the mischieviousness of Briony and the heartache of Cecelia and Robbie.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas  I'm so glad I read the book before I saw the movie, because that ending just tore my heart out and I would have embarassed myself if I reacted in the theater as I did in my house after finishing the book.

Schindler's List I read this after I saw the movie and loved the additional background the book provided.

The Pianist  Another one that I read after the movie.  Both are great, but I think in this case I may have preferred the movie.  Adrian Brody is absolutely fantastic.
What are your favorite book to movie adaptations?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Another Reason Why I Want to Improve my French Skills

  A weekly program on network discussing books and literature, La Grande Librairie  (The Large Bookstore) is my dream television show.  I've only seen two episodes so far (I just included this channel in my cable package to improve my French) but it is wonderful.  On each show four authors are profiled; of course most of them are French but Nicole Krauss was also featured; they also profile a bookstore in France and when I visit I am starting a list of places to browse.

  The version I'm seeing is subtitled, so I can follow along and hopefully in the future can just listen to the conversation.  But since the topic of the show interests me immensely, I feel I am making more of an effort to comprehend.  Oh, and I've added a few books to my to-read pile; ideally I'll read them in French or else I'll eagerly await translations.

  And by the way, why can't there be programs like this on American television?  There surely would be an audience for this type of show? 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

East of the Sun

East of the Sun by Julia Gregson
Published:  2008 by Touchstone, a Division of Simon and Schuster
Source:  Purchased

  East of the Sun tells the story of three young women travelling from England to India in the late 1920s in search of new lives.  For two of the women, Rose and Victoria (known as Tor, which seemed like an absurd nickname to me), this meant finding and marrying a good man; for their shipboard chaperone, Viva, it meant returning to the country of her childhood, uncovering family secrets, and making a fresh start as a writer.
  I suppose Viva is meant to be the main character of the novel, as she takes on chaperoning Rose and Tor (as well as a disturbed schoolboy, Guy Glover) to India in order to pay her own passage to retrieve a trunk of her parents left with a family friend.  However, Rose and Tor's stories receive almost as much attention -- Rose preparing for marriage to a British military man and Tor trying to line up her own betrothal in order to avoid returning to England -- and it felt to me that their narratives overshadowed that of Viva's.  It's also interesting to me that Guy Glover didn't receive his own narrative; he appears throughout the novel, but he is never truly explained and remains a mysterious character.

  There is a bit of everything in this book -- romance, mystery, violence -- and it does provide a sensual portrait of India in the 1920s and 1930s (my favorite aspect of the book) -- but to me it doesn't seem put together well, making it difficult to follow at times.  If I hadn't selected this book as one of my 2011 TBR Pile Challenge choices, I probably would not have finished it. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Bee-Loud Glade

The Bee-Loud Glade by Steve Himmer
Published:  2011 by Atticus Books
Source:  Purchased

  It's been a while since I've mentioned the Books on the Nightstand Reading Retreat that I attended in April (best weekend ever), but after reading The Bee-Loud Glade I felt it deserved one more shout-out because without the retreat it is likely that I would have never picked this book up and that would be a shame.

  The Bee-Loud Glade tells the story of Finch, a man of undetermined age (though probably between 25-35) who, after losing his job at Second Nature Modern Greenery falls into a funk and among other things starts answering spam e-mail he receives.  One of these e-mails is an employment ad:

Are you a quiet, contemplative nature enthusiast available for full-time employment?  This is the opportunity you have been waiting for and thought would never arrive.  We offer a competitive salary and excellent benefits, including all lodging and meals.  Daydreamers and introverts encouraged to apply.  May we assume you are interested?

  A knock on his apartment door some days later starts Finch on his new career path as a decorative hermit in the gardens of Mr. Crane, a man with apparently too much money on his hands and who is running out of ways to spend it. 

  For an absurd amount of money (held for him until the end of his "employment" term of seven years), Finch is required to live in a cave in the garden, perform duties as requested by Mr. Crane, stop shaving, and stop talking.  As this was not a lot different from what Finch was doing in his period of unemployment, he takes the position.

  Of course things aren't all cut and dry -- there wouldn't be much of a novel if they were.  Finch has some trouble with the true hermitic life at first, and Mr. Crane finds some very odd tasks for him to perform in order to remain amused.  And, in alternating chapters right from the beginning of the novel, we see Finch as the hermit later on -- which not entirely explained, creates more questions that probably needed a longer book to answer. 

  The Bee-Loud Glade is definitely a quirky book that might not be everyone's cup of tea, but I enjoyed it and as I mentioned it definitely would not have been a book I picked up on my own.  If you have ever worked in a corporate environment,  though, you will likely find something to relate to in Finch.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French
Published:  2011 by Doubleday
Source:  Purchased

  During the Cold War, a pregnant Marylou Ahearn was an unaware participant in a top secret study about the effects of radioactivity.  The effects of the study -- physical and emotional -- took a few years to arise, and Marylou never could quite move beyond it.  So, at the age of 77, she decides to take matters into her own hands and sets out to kill the doctor who ran the study.

  Such is the premise of The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady.  What Marylou doesn't know, however, is that the doctor, Wilson Spriggs, is suffering from dementia and lives with his daughter and her family; all of whom have their own issues.  She moves into the neighborhood, takes on an alias, Nancy Archer (from the cult film Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) and works her way into the family; she doesn't feel right killing Spriggs if he is not aware of the reason why, so she intends to hurt his family as she believes he hurt hers.

  I have to say that after reading Elizabeth Stuckey-French's short story collection The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa, I had doubts about this novel, because the short stories did not interest me.  But I was pleasantly surprised; Radioactive Lady is a quirky novel with some interesting (at times, weird) characters that also says something about family bonds (love them or hate them, they are still your family).  I thought part of the ending was a bit of a stretch, but otherwise this was a very enjoyable novel.

Highly Recommended

Sunday, May 8, 2011

AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead

Published:  2011 by University of Iowa Press
Source:  Review copy received from publisher via NetGalley

  AfterWord:  Conjuring the Literary Dead, is a collection of speculative essays of situations where modern day writers interact with authors of the past.  In the introduction, the collection's editor, Dale Salwak described the essays as "an invitation to come face-to-face with a literary personage in a new way"; and while this may be true, for the casual reader of classic literature (if there is such a thing) the collection may be taken as inaccessible, readable only to experts in a particular author or genre.

  The most interesting essay to me was Eugene Goodheart's discussion with Jane Austen about her heroine, Emma Woodhouse.  I disliked Emma immensely (the character and the novel) and the speculative explanation told by Austen via Goodheart is interesting, especially since Austen references Stephen Dedalus in her argument of why Emma is her favorite character.  When Goodheart expresses astonishment that she is familiar with James Joyce's work she responds:

You are bemused.  Well ask yourself, how is it possible that I am speaking to you, centuries after my death?  As an immortal writer (spoken plainly and without irony), I have met and will continue to meet other immortal writers who were born long after I died.

  Now wouldn't those be interesting discussions?

  Alas, because I was familiar with only the names of the other resurrected authors (but not all -- who was George Gissing?) I don't think I could properly appreciate the other essays.  They seemed too academic, focussing on minutiae of the author's life rather than his or her work; however given that the publisher is an academic press I suppose that can be expected.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Losing Interest in Authors

  Have you ever had the realization that an author you've once enjoyed - even adored - is no longer interesting to you?

  After a particularly rough day at the office, I was doing some shopping at Target (my favorite non-bookstore store) and felt the need to browse their (surprisingly good) book section to perhaps pick up something to elevate my mood.  I noticed that a new release by Jen Lancaster - her first novel - was available, so I took a look at the jacket copy - and put the book back on the shelf.

  I read Lancaster's memoir Bright Lights, Big Ass, a few years ago on a day when I was running to a bunch of medical appointments (you know you are getting old when you take a vacation day to go to the doctor!) and it was the perfect book for that situation:  Short essay-like chapters told in a conversational style and very very funny.  After that I read her first book, Bitter is the New Black, and thought it was just ok, but her next release, Such a Pretty Fat was another winner for me, and since then I've picked up her new releases not long after publication. 

  But her last few books, just haven't clicked with me.  It could be that my tastes have changed and that I've (ahem) matured somewhat where I don't find certain topics as funny or as relatable as I once did.  I just realized today that when I had her novel in my hands I truly thought about the reasoning behind purchasing a book I wasn't overly thrilled about "just because" I've purchased the rest of the author's work and decided that my money would be better spent on a book I truly wanted to read (yes, given my bookaholic tendencies I realize this is a bit hypocritical, but it's a start, right?).  There's some guilt there, but I've no doubt there will be plenty of others who will purchase and enjoy her book.
  I can think of a few other authors who I'm "tiring" of:  Jennifer Weiner comes to mind (I was so disappointed with her last novel, Fly Away Home), and (though I can't believe I'm saying this) Margaret Atwood doesn't thrill me with her dystopic work (Oryx & Crake, and The Year of the Flood).  Where I once would automatically buy their new books in hardcover (ok with Atwood I likely will -- she is a literary goddess after all) I might seriously look at the book and think before making the purchase.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Between the Assassinations

Published:  2009 by Free Press
Source:  Purchased

    Between the Assassinations is Aravind Adiga's second work of fiction that I've seen published in the United States.  His first novel, The White Tiger, won the Man Booker Prize and was a tale about the not-so-pretty side of India; and while not as harsh, in Between the Assassinations Adiga still describes a brutal reality of Indian life that is uncomfortable to us in the West.

    The book is a collection of linked short stories set in Kittur, India.  The stories describe the interesting characters who inhabit the town and the hardships of everyday life that most of them must endure only to just barely survive.  Set in the period between the assassinations of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 (though Rajiv Gandhi is not mentioned at all in the book), the conditions described are not of ancient history; as in his first novel Adiga portrays India realistically, with its beauty and sensual delights along with the poverty and squalor.

   I didn't love this book, but as I am fascinated with India and hope to one day visit, I did enjoy reading it.  Again, its realistic description of life in the country is eye-opening.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

May's Reading List

  April was definitely a month of reading highs and lows for me.  Early in the month, I spent the most amazing weekend at the Books on the Nightstand Reading Retreat and then at the end of the month I got sick where I couldn't read anything for a few days. 
   So let's hope May is a little more balanced (though I wouldn't give away my time at the Retreat for anything.  It.Was.Awesome.)  My reading list:

For Reading Groups:
For Reading Challenges:
For Review:
This should keep me busy for the month!  What will you be reading?