Monday, January 31, 2011

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The RoadTitle: The Road
Author: Cormac MacCarthy
Pages: 287
Published: 2007 Vintage Books (orig. 2006)
Read For: Back to the Classics Challenge, Pulitzer Challenge
My Rating: 4.5 stars

When the film adaptation of this book was released, I had no idea that it had begun as a book, and definitely no idea that it was a Pulitzer Prize winner.  All I knew was that the film looked creepy, and that dystopia was not my thing.  My husband went to see it without me, and I was perfectly fine with that.

And then I found out that it was a Pulitzer Prize Winner and I was agape for about three weeks.  I've loved the Pulitzers I've read, they have always been insightful and written well, and I've made it a personal goal to read them all at some point.  So The Road made it onto my TBR list.  When I made the further discovery that the author has some other amazing books out there, The Road jumped up quite high on my list.

I can't say that The Road was an enjoyable book to read.  How could a story of a father and son trying to survive a cruel wasted world be pleasant?  What was fascinating to me about this book was that the plot line was so very simple, the two main characters were only slightly developed, (you get to know their thoughts, but never their names.  There is no contemplating or bonding or making friendships with these poor distraught characters--they are in survival mode for goodness' sake!  No time to kick back and ponder!) the writing was sparse, and yet the setting was vivid and boy, was my heart pounding!  I recently posted the first line, but the syntax is brilliant and bears repeating.
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.
The only other quote from the book I took note of was on page 15.  After that I pretty much didn't breathe or blink until there were no more words for me to devour.
The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and impenetrable.  A blackness to hurt your ears with listening.
There were no dialogue tags in the book, so once or twice I had to reread a couple of lines to make sure I was sure of who was talking, but overall it didn't inhibit the reading experience.  If anything, it enhanced it because it made you aware that the attention wasn't solely on the conversation, the character's attention was elsewhere.  Many of the sentences were fragmented observations, which really served to set the mood as well.  In short, McCarthy's writing floored me.  I immediately found an excuse to drop by my local indie book shop and get my hands on another of his books (ended up with All the Pretty Horses) because I can't wait to read more of his writing.  I almost even want to see The Road in film format, but I don't know if I'm ready yet.  Maybe at some point the intensity will fade and I'll be up for the experience.

If all the books I've chosen for the Back to the Classics Challenge are this rewarding, I'm in for a great six months!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Safe From the Sea by Peter Geye

Safe from the SeaTitle: Safe From the Sea
Author: Peter Geye
Pages: 256
Published: 2010 Unbridled
Read For: Indie Lit Awards
My Rating: 5 stars

The premise is fairly simple.  An estranged father and son attempt to reconnect. The final product, however, has much more depth and complexity.  It begins when Olaf telephones his son Noah, seemingly out of the blue, after years without any communication whatsoever, and asks him to come to his lakeside cabin in cold Minnesota.  Noah does, in spite of infertility issues he and his wife are in the middle of dealing with, realizing that his father must be quite ill.  Hearing Olaf relate a traumatic, life-changing experience aboard the Ragnarok, the ore ship he worked on, was fascinating--even for a devoted sea-hater such as myself--and did much to help Noah understand his father's perpetual aloofness.

The writing, also, is very clean and uncluttered.  A palpable setting and surprising depth of feeling is spun from almost an almost sparse structure.  Even a full paragraph dedicated to description didn't feel flowery or overdone.  It was just the right balance: enough to spur your imagination and no more.  This paragraph about Noah's observation of his dad's truck is about as descriptive and detailed as it gets:
The truck smelled of cigars, and the inside of the windows dripped with condensation.  The plastic upholstery covering the enormous front seat was split and cracked from corner to corner, and mustard-colored foam padding burst through the tear.  A speedometer, fuel gauge, and heater control sat derelict on the dashboard, and beneath it, where a radio should have been, three wires dangled, clipped, with copper frizz flowering from each.
As for the characters, at first they seemed a little flat and unimpressive, (or in the case of Noah's wife, Natalie, downright irritating,) but like any new people you meet, you learn their complexities over time.  It was refreshing to spend some time with mature characters, people that have some sense of respect and willingness to change and grow.  Even the minor characters had depth.  Gordy, the piano tuner; Mel, the bartender; Knut, the hardware store owner.

I found myself racing through this book, couldn't put it down, really.  At one point I felt bad that I wasn't taking enough time to savor the writing, but quickly decided that a book such as this was worthy of a reread.  It really isn't often that you find a book with an engaging plot that also has so many other things going for it: real characters, vivid setting, lovely writing, complex themes.  Safe From the Sea is so well balanced that it will appeal to a wide range of readers.  It is one of those rare treats that made me sigh with satisfaction when it was over, ready to turn back to page one and start all over again.  This is why I read.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Foray into First Lines

Do you pay attention to first lines?  I kind of do.  Sometimes.  Usually when I'm wishing I could read the book but I'm reading too many other things to make it feasible.  It's like an extension of the longing glance at the bookshelf or the glancing brush of fingers on the spine.  In practice, I judge a book more by the first few pages than I do the first few lines.

I thought it might be fun, however, to compare some first lines.  I happen to be surrounded by a bunch of Pulitzer Prize winners (many from the giveaway I won at Ordinary Reader) and got curious.  Do think it says anything about a book?  Do you think that it can be used as an accurate assessment of what the book holds?  I've read the first two on the list, and their first sentences definitely remind me of the writing style and story. I want to get to the others soon! Have you read any of these? What do you think?

The Road --2007 publication

The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2007)
"When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him."


March, Geraldine Brooks (2006)
"This is what I write to her: The clouds tonight embossed the sky."

Gilead: A Novel

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (2005)
"I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old."


The Known World, Edward P. Jones (2004)
"The evening his master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins."

Middlesex: A Novel (Oprah's Book Club)

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides (2003)
"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage by, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974."

Empire Falls

Empire Falls, Richard Russo (2002)
"Compared to the Whiting mansion in town, the house Charles Beaumont Whiting built a decade after his return to Maine was modest."

The Hours: A Novel

The Hours, Michael Cunningham (1999)
"She hurries from the house, wearing a coat too heavy for the weather."

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, Steven Millhauser (1997)
"There once lived a man named Martin Dressler, a shopkeeper's son, who rose from modest beginnings to a height of dreamlike good fortune."

Independence Day: Bascombe Trilogy (2)

Independence Day, Richard Ford (1996)
"In Haddam, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A NovelTitle: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
Author: Helen Simonson
Pages: 358
Published: 2010 Random House
Read For: Indie Lit Awards
My Rating: 3 stars

I have a soft spot for gruff older gentlemen, so it came as no surprise that I loved Major Pettigrew.  The Major, a widower in his 60s, had lived a quiet, rather predictable life until his brother passed away.  Amid the struggle of dealing with this sudden grief, regularity and routine were disrupted and the Major found himself having to think about many things in a new light.

Many hefty issues are lightly touched on in this romp through the modern English countryside: racism, immigration and assimilation; manners, values, and parenting; social, moral and familial obligations.  For all those weighty themes, however, the book remains rather light.  Grief is touched on in the beginning of the book, although the mood soon lifts, as the Major is forced to focus on other issues.  There are a lot of stereotypes brought to light throughout the book, especially in regards to British and American differences, but even these are handled in a humorous manner.  I kept thinking, hoping really, that there would be some real insight into some of these issues, but that never seemed to happen.

The characters are very easy to picture, as well as much of the countryside where the story takes place.  It was almost like watching a movie the way each scene was so vividly laid out.  The downside to this, for me, was that even the well developed characters, the Major and Mrs. Ali for example, seemed to be portrayed from a step away.  They were all...characters.

Despite the fact that this ended up feeling like a very average read for me, I would still recommend it under the right circumstances.  What felt to me like a book that didn't know what it wanted to be, seems to come off to most people as having a little of everything.  A subtle difference, perhaps, but one that can greatly affect your final impression.  It was a very sweet story, (or "cute" to quote fizzythoughts,) and maybe it isn't Pettigrew's fault that I expected a little bit more.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan

The Lover's Dictionary: A NovelTitle: The Lover's Dictionary
Author: David Levithan
Pages: 224
Published: 2011 Farrar, Straus and Giroux
My Rating: 5 stars

Technically I should be reviewing other books before getting to this one...I'm usually pretty good about reviewing books in the order I read them. (And with that sentence I've declared to the world one of my obsessive-compulsive-personality-trait idiosyncrasies.  Oh well, you probably already assumed as much.)  I couldn't wait to talk about this one though. I want everyone to get their hands on it so we can chat about it!

Reading this small description was all it took to make me know I needed to get my hands on this book:
A sweet and modern love story, told through dictionary entries.
Dictionary entries?  Really? Amazing!  And the book is amazing.  It's addictive, actually.  The entries aren't long, they range from a sentence or two to just over a page.  Due to that, as well as the thoughtfulness and humor that is laced through each definition, this book reads almost more like a collection of prose poetry than a novel.  But a collection that you can't stop reading.  There isn't the traditional story arc or dialogue found in most novels, but what is contained between "aberrant" and "zenith" is so absorbing, fun, and honest that traditional isn't at all missed.
stanchion, n.
I don't want to be the strong one, but I don't want to be the weak one, either.  Why does it feel like it's always one or the other?  When we embrace, one of us is always holding the other a little tighter.
I found it to be a little sad at times, but there were so many things I identified with that I couldn't help but be charmed.  What relationship has not experienced uncertainty, fascination, irritation?  This is a book worth owning, and not simply because you will want to show it to every person who walks through your door.  This is a book you will see on your shelf and pull it down to read an entry or two, just to get a taste of that full-to-bursting feeling that goes hand in hand with falling in love.
aloof, adj.
It has always been my habit, ever since junior high school, to ask that question:
"What are you thinking?"
It is always an act of desperation, and I keep on asking, even though I know it will never work the way I want it to.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby

The Polysyllabic SpreeTitle: The Polysyllabic Spree
Author: Nick Hornby
Pages: 143
Published: 2004 McSweeney's
My Rating: 3.5 stars

Subtitled: A Hilarious and True Account of One Man's Struggle with the Monthly Tide of the Books He's Bought and the Books He's Been Meaning to Read

If you've ever read Nick Hornby, you know that he keeps you smiling.  This is the second book of his I've read, but I know it won't be the last.  I've noticed that his books grow on me over time.  Usually my feelings about a book are solidified within a day or two after reading it, but this has not been the case with Hornby.  The smiles and laughs stick in my head, and the fatalistic perspective evaporates.  Unlike High Fidelity (the first book of his I read) The Polysyllabic Spree is Nonfiction.  It is a collection of essays originally published in the Believer magazine in which Hornby talks about the reading life.

Each chapter begins with two lists: the books that he bought in that month, and the books that he read in that month.  Then he proceeds to chat about his months in books.  I love his attitude about buying books:
I don't want anyone writing to point out that I spend too much money on books, many of which I will never read.  I know that already.  I certainly intend to read all of them, more or less.  My intentions are good.  Anyway, it's my money.  And I'll bet you do it too.
This is a book about  books.  And it's funny.  And it's quick to read.  That's about all you need to know to decide whether you should read it or not.  The reason I ended up only giving it 3.5 stars is because I was frustrated that I hadn't heard of more of the books/authors he mentioned, which I attributed to the fact that he's in England and I'm way over here in California.  But, like I said, the longer it has been since closing the covers, the more it is growing on me.

Friday, January 21, 2011

C by Tom McCarthy

CTitle: C
Author: Tom McCarthy
Pages: 320
Published:  2010 Knopf
Read For: Indie Lit Awards Short List
My Rating: 3 stars

Have you ever seen one of those movies, or perhaps read a book, where the tone of the writing directly represents the lucidity and mental well-being of the main character?  This is the case with C, I believe, as it follows Serge Carrefax's life in its different stages.

The details of Serge's life, however, are not the driving force of the book.  The driving force, if you were to claim that C has one, is more in the symbolism, the recurring motifs, the themes.  If you enjoy a puzzle, cracking the code, then you will find much to love in this book.  If you are looking for something plot driven, Serge's story is likely to leave you bored.  If you are looking for something character driven, expect to be frustrated, as Serge is a rather two-dimensional character.  He has issues with perspective.  If you are looking to be wowed by the writing, be prepared to do some work peeling back some of the layers first.

I appreciate that McCarthy tests the boundaries of what a novel should look like.  I think that it is important in the evolution of literature that some authors take chances on new ideas, different structures, and original ways to express ideas.  Still, C didn't necessarily work for me, mostly because I'm not up to cracking the code in order to be able to enjoy the message (the prose itself is not difficult to read, the difficulty is in making the prose have meaning).  The parts of the book that I enjoyed the most were the sections that had some brilliancy and clarity: much of his childhood, the seance scenes, the health spa.  The other parts, the sections that seemed to exist mainly as a medium to contain the symbolism, were more of a chore for me to read, and the ending just sort of faded into the static.  Here's an interesting quote to ponder:
He begins to tell Serge what it is he does, but Serge ignores the content of his speech, trying all the while to place his accent.  That he can't do so isn't due to any sociological failing on his part, but rather to a growing acoustic strangeness overtaking him: all dialogues and tones have sounded foreign since he left the Ani, as though his aural apparatus had been thrown off-kilter by the land's vibrations.

As far as the Indie Lit Awards go, I find it interesting to have a short list with such great variety.  C is almost opposite of Room in many respects, with Great House falling somewhere in between, which makes the discussion about Literary Fiction that much more fun.  (Reviews on Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and Safe From the Sea coming soon!)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What a Stinker

Literary Blog HopOh yes, enough of those literary books that we love, what about those that we've hated? The Blue Bookcase asks, for this installment of the Literary Blog Hop, for us to Discuss a work of literary merit that you hated when you were made to read it in school or university. Why did you dislike it?

I really only have one answer for the this: The Old Man and the Sea.  ((shudder))
Granted, I hated my teacher, and was determined to hate the book.  But I thought I'd hate it in a "stupid assignment, this is so annoying" way, not a "toothpicks under my fingernails would feel better than this" way.

It's a mere 120-something pages.  I'd read Anna Karenina, this should have been cake.  But my fear & loathing of the sea teamed up with my irritation & disdain for my teacher and this little renowned book kicked my butt.  After the first page or two, I could have sworn that I was reading the same three pages over and over (and over and over) again.  Old man is on the sea in small boat.  Old man catches fish.  Fish is big and strong.  Man will not let go.  Fish will not give up.  Repeat.

I realize I'm going to have to give this another shot at some point.  I realize that I will likely think differently of it now than I did then.  I realize that it is utterly ridiculous that I've used this little book as an excuse to hate all books about the sea (especially considering I've read two 5-star books in the last 6 months that have "Sea" in the title and partially take place on boats).  I realize I need to get over it already.

But complaining about it so much more fun. :)