Wednesday, March 31, 2010

She was in a hurry, because anxious. And she disliked partings, all the business of embraces, regrets, and promises. So she began the journey and left the city without ceremony, while her friends were distracted at Sunday dinner, which in Saint Petersburg occurred at five o'clock. The Moika Canal sat frozen close to her small, leaking apartment, and the deep snow and the hour deadened sound. The unsteadiness of the horses, the ordering of the servants, the instructing of the postilions, the care of a small boy, the disposition of a heavy carriage on runners and a sled behind, the noise of three languages, the heaving of luggage, and the storing of provisions made a muffled confusion in the dusk.

--Michael O'Brien, opening paragraph to Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

No go, Vertigo

Tomorrow the Slaves of Golconda will begin discussion of W.G. Sebald's first novel, Vertigo. Mine was one of the votes for the Sebald, so I'm more than a little chagrinned to admit that I was unable to finish it. I've been rather hit or miss in writing reviews on Slaves' books for the last couple of years, but other than an Oscar Wilde that I'd read a year prior to its selection by the Slaves and therefore took a pass on, I have read every one since the group first began reading together in late 2005.

I started Vertigo three weeks ago, forced myself through the first 60 pages, then set it aside thinking I'd pick it up again closer to the discussion date. But merely thinking about attempting the book again left me feeling oppressed, which brought out all my procrastinating tendencies in full force until it was simply too late to bother.

The scuttlebutt is that several of us had difficulty with the Sebald. I think of the Slaves as a formidable group of readers, so the fact that one book was able to get the better of a good portion of us seems worthy of note.

I'll be following the discussion of Vertigo with great interest. I'm still holding out hope that I'll pick it up again at some point in the future and wonder what my problem was this time around.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Life Sentences by Laura Lippman

We all have our readerly prejudices--singular authors or whole genres that we steer clear of. We've either read that sort of thing in an earlier stage of our lives and have now put it behind us or have been warned off venturing in that direction altogether by someone whose opinion we trust or would like to live up to. When we do read outside our self-imposed boundaries and find something out there that works for us, that makes us rethink why we'd ever thought x about y, or causes us, as often is the case, to double down on our prejudices by enthusing that this particular book/author transcends its genre, we're apt to offend those who've never had our biases to begin with and now feel compelled to put us in our place by telling us that what we admire is what we'd most abhor if we only knew the first thing about what it was we were talking about.*

Anyway. . .

Whenever my friends C. and A. launch into a discussion of the mystery/crime authors they've been reading I have a tendency to zone in and out. I've told myself for years that I don't read mysteries--not enough attention typically spent on character development to make them worth my while. Nevertheless, I love Kate Atkinson's characters and those of Tana French and have found myself as of late not at all opposed to the idea of mysteries with a more literary focus. Offered a chance to participate in the TLC Tour for Laura Lippman's latest, Life Sentences, I was happy to sign on. I've seen Lippman's name crop up--always favorably--at Readerville (R.I.P.) and Book Balloon enough over the last couple of years to have had her at the back of my mind as someone I'd like to try.

Now, your opinion of Life Sentences may depend on which side of the divide you started on. If you read a lot of mysteries, this may mess with your expectations and leave you unfulfilled--even I, who, in general, forget endings quickly and could care less who actually done it, felt the solution to the central mystery in this one a little unworthy of the build-up. But if you're willing to accept that the heart of the novel lies outside the conventional mystery itself, and you don't have a readerly prejudice against a main character who's often downright unlikeable, then you'll probably enjoy Life Sentences as much as I did.

Cassandra Fallows makes a name for herself writing memoirs--one that highlighted her father's promiscuities, the other, her own--before she publishes her first work of literary fiction. When the novel fails to garner favorable reviews or sell to the same degree as the memoirs, she's convinced that she ought to return to nonfiction--despite the fact that she's "run out of life" of her own to exploit.

There's always that of former elementary school classmate Calliope Jenkins, though, who served seven years in prison for contempt following the disappearance of her infant son and her refusal to say what happened to him. Cassandra is convinced she can solve the mystery surrounding Calliope, especially if her childhood friends back in Baltimore lend their support, and regain her bestseller status in the process.

The trouble is these friends are most uncooperative when it comes to exposing Calliope for the sake of yet another Cassandra-centered work--they think Cassandra should stick to fiction. In fact, they think Cassandra's memoirs were filled with fictions in the first place: if she "couldn't get the small things right, why should she be trusted on the big things?" Tisha, in particular, still resents how Cassandra co-opted Martin Luther King's assassination and turned it into "the story of her own personal tragedy. She hadn't known, couldn't know what had gone on in the living rooms and kitchens of black folks' homes that horrible weekend, the fear and grief and terror of it all."

Attempting to get to the bottom of Calliope's story and reacquainting herself with childhood friends and classmates will lead Cassandra to reassess her memories and face previously unrecognized truths about her family and herself.

Because Cassandra's a writer, there's lots of references to books she's read--I'll have a Reading Habits of Fictional Characters post based on Life Sentences up in a day or two.

You can read more reviews on Life Sentences by following the links at TLC Book Tours.

*a literary agent of Cassandra Fallows' acquaintance would call this first paragraph throat-clearing, microphone-tapping. He would want me to take it out.


Monday, March 22, 2010

A lot of new books

Obviously I'm not doing so well in the stop-accumulating-so-many-books department. The shelves are full and I'm running out of flat surfaces for the myriad stacks. So what else is new?

Sans yesterday's books, these are the tricky devils that have finagled their way into my home since the first of the year:

Skippy Dies. Paul Murray. A three-volume slipcovered novel about boarding school, doughnut-eating races and parallel universes.

Stephen Hero. James Joyce. An early version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I found it on the Free Books table in the staff lounge.

After the Workshop. John McNally. What do you do after graduating from the Iowa Writers' Workshop? You write a novel about someone who graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and winds up working as a media escort for author tours.

Workers in the Dawn. George Gissing. Gissing's first novel brought back into print by Debbie Harrison and Victorian Secrets.

The Hand That First Held Mine. Maggie O'Farrell. Publishers have sent me both the hardback and then the paperback version of a couple of books, but I think this is the first time I've received both an uncorrected proof and the finished hardback.

Life Sentences. Laura Lippman. For a book tour. Look for my review on Thursday.

Parrot and Olivier in America. Peter Carey. Historical fiction based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville.

Twilight in Delhi. Ahmed Ali. Nineteenth-century India.

Wigs on the Green and Don't Tell Alfred. Nancy Mitford. These should be great for the next Read-a-thon, don't you think?

Vertigo. W.G. Sebald. The Slaves of Golconda will be discussing this at the end of the month.

The Possessed. Elif Batuman. I thought this sounded perfect for my daughter--and how even more perfect that I got to read it first!

Wish Her Safe at Home. Stephen Benatar. Woman inherits a mansion, proceeds into mania.

The Cost of Living and Varieties of Exile. Mavis Gallant. Short stories.

Fortunes of War. Olivia Manning. World War II trilogy set in Europe.

The Eleventh Plague. Darren Craske. Review copy. Book 2 of the Cornelius Quaint Chronicles.

Hopeful Monsters. Nicholas Mosley. If we are to survive in the environment we have made for ourselves, may we have to be monstrous enough to greet our predicament?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Used book finds

While on my way to the pet store yesterday to buy the expensive litter that's our only line of defense against Claudius having accidents outside the box, I took an out-of-the-way detour and wound up at the used book store.

Incredibly enough, I had not been there in eight months. Even more incredibly, the unfriendly store cat was happy to see me and insisted that I make over him instead of glaring that I ought to keep my distance if I knew what was good for me.

So after our mutual schmooze session, I sneezed and snuffled along the fiction shelves and came away with:

Breakfast of Champions. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I have no idea where my original copy has wound up, but this one looks just like that long-lost friend. Ah, nostalgia. . .

Hideous Kinky. Esther Freud. I'd been on the lookout for this for awhile.

The Decameron. Giovanni Boccaccio. I think this is going to be my long-term project once I've completed Ulysses.

The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart. M. Glenn Taylor. A National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, according to the cover, which sports an impressive-looking snake.

Still Alice. Lisa Genova. Alzheimer's disease. I'll have to work up some courage to read it.

Our Sometime Sister. Norah Labiner. With this purchase I now own all Labiner's novels. I suppose that's a sign I should stop collecting her work and get around to reading it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Terrible news

Charlotte Mecklenburg Library board members say they will vote today on a proposal to close half its branches and lay off 140 workers - almost a third of its employees - in the next two weeks.

. . . . The cuts come at a time of growing library use. Annual circulation was up more than 7 percent from October 2008 to October 2009, following a similar jump the previous year.

--Ely Portillo, The Charlotte Observer

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Orange Prize Long List

Rosie Alison. The Very Thought of You

Eleanor Catton. The Rehearsal

Clare Clark. Savage Lands

Amanda Craig. Hearts and Minds

Roopa Farooki. The Way Things Look to Me

Rebecca Gowers. The Twisted Heart

M.J. Hyland. This is How

Sadie Jones. Small Wars

Barbara Kingsolver. The Lacuna

Laila Lalami. Secret Son

Andrea Levy. The Long Song

Attica Locke. Black Water Rising

Maria McCann. The Wilding

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Nadifa Mohamed. Black Mamba Boy

Lorrie Moore. A Gate at the Stairs

Monique Roffey. The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

Amy Sackville. The Still Point

Kathryn Stockett. The Help

Sarah Waters. The Little Stranger

I've read only the Moore and the Waters and have the Kingsolver and Mantel at hand. A lot of these I've never even heard of.
Why should we celebrate the Irish?

No doubt, several reasons could be proffered. But for me one answer stands out. Long, long ago the Irish pulled off a remarkable feat: They saved the books of the Western world and left them as gifts for all humanity.

--Thomas Cahill, Turning Green With Literacy

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Proof you're way too much of a political junkie:

When one of the first thoughts that pop into your mind after you wake from a colonoscopy is "This is good news for John McCain!"

Monday, March 01, 2010

True Murder by Yaba Badoe

Whenever a thunderstorm occurred during Ajuba's childhood in Ghana, a superstitious maid would rush to cover all the mirrors.

It was said in her village that the reflection of lightning in a mirror could kill you. What was even more terrifying were the ghosts in mirrors. Lightning could reveal them. Her people believed that during a thunderstorm, if you looked carefully, hovering behind your reflection you'd see the faces of your enemies.

After a series of miscarriages and stillbirths, Ajuba's parents' marriage disintegrates and her mother--seeing a multitude of enemies in her mirror--sinks into mental illness. Ajuba is placed in loco parentis in a rural public school in England, where she eventually connects with another newcomer, Polly Venus, whose own parents are headed toward divorce. The 11-year-olds find human bones wrapped away in a trunk in Polly's attic and, influenced by the girls' shared obsession with true crime stories, spend a summer vacation together attempting to pinpoint the murderer. Meanwhile, Polly's mother becomes increasingly unhinged and it is Ajuba, not Polly, who worries over her decline.

And just how much worrying over Ajuba should the reader engage in when she reveals she's "reached a state of acute sensitivity in which other people's thoughts and emotions merged" with her own--particularly those of a violent sort?

Narrated by an adult Ajuba, who has been unable to bear looking in mirrors since her time with Polly's family, True Murder is an attempt to lay ghosts to rest by recounting the events leading up to her friend's death. Although readers are told on the first page of this death, Yaba Badoe, who's worked as both a journalist and documentary film-maker before turning to fiction, serves up an impressively shocking and creepy ending.

Published in the UK in 2009, True Murder still doesn't have a U.S. pub date. Thank goodness for the Book Depository and its free shipping policy.

A bang, not a whimper

  Two months into L.'s retirement, and I'm finished with the stockpiling of books. No more book purchases! Or at least, no purcha...