A selection from Then We Came to the End

This is probably not the right place to be, probably the wrong place, actually. Matter of fact, if the wrong place could be identified on a map – “You Are Here” – this would probably be it. And this thing she might do, enter the building and have the night guard call up and inform him who he had waiting for him in the lobby? Not the right thing to be doing. But she’s been driving around for half a tank of gas now and lo and behold she ends up here. The street where his firm’s office is located is one block east of Michigan Avenue. The Mag Mile is deserted like always this time of night. She’s parked illegally, but the only vehicle to drive past in twenty minutes is a cabbie with his light off. Going home, probably. That’s the wise choice, cabbie – big day tomorrow, take yourself home and rest your weary bones. Why can’t she have a cabbie’s good sense? Lynn Mason in her Saab outside Martin Grant’s office building doesn’t feel forty-three so much as fourteen, unhinged by strong affections. “Wait wait wait wait wait wait wait wait wait wait wait wait wait wait wait!” she says out loud, pounding the steering wheel and grabbing onto it, shaking it. She can’t actually be where she is! How did the night, starting at the top of the mountain with Chinese and TV, run like a landslide of shit down to this low ravine here? Does she really want to go up there and just be in an office? There is no mystery, no attraction, no reward, no surprise in the empty corridors of an office at ten at night – she knows from firsthand experience. Spending her last night in an office, that’s inane. But the thing is, in that office up there? There is Martin. There is Martin. And the universal truth is, it matters not where he is, if he is drowning in the ocean or burning in a fire – that’s where his lover wants to be. So it doesn’t matter if he’s an unshowered, crabby, gaseous, overworked, eye-twitching, mind-dulled man under the purgatorial light, walking the barren halls with their unringing phones and bad art. She wants to be up there. How could she help but find herself parked here, regardless of what she told herself earlier in the evening – that there would be no Martin tonight, no talking to Martin? A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and at this hour, she has thrown all consistency to the wind.
A selection from Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris.


Stories Will Never Die

From The Telegraph:

Changing technologies have affected the means by which stories are told. You can follow the story of a person's life pointillistically through a Twitter feed or voyeuristically through a webcam.

You can read a self-contained novel; one with an alternate ending; or a choose-your-own adventure book.

You can steer petty criminal Niko Bellic through the nodes of GTA4's restricted but ingenious video game structure; or follow the endlessly overlapping plot arcs of an open-structure narrative like a soap opera.

But when you strip off all the bells and whistles, these stories will be in all the important essences no different from the stories that Vladimir Propp, or the authors of the Bible, or Homer and her many co-authors, would have recognised. "Next generation synthetic performer technologies" or not.

Read the whole article here.


A Selection from Tender is the Night

“God, am I like the rest after all?”—So he used to think starting awake at night—“Am I like the rest?”

This was poor material for a socialist but good material for those who do much of the world’s rarest work. The truth was that for some months he had been going through that partitioning of the things of youth wherein it is decided whether or not to die for what one no longer believes. In the dead white hours in Zurich staring into a stranger’s pantry across the upshine of a street- lamp, he used to think that he wanted to be good, he wanted to be kind, he wanted to be brave and wise, but it was all pretty difficult. He wanted to be loved, too, if he could fit it in.
A selection from Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald.


Keeping Faith

I finished this last night because I couldn't bear to spend another day of my life with this in my purse. So why did I read it? For the same reason that many young women read books they might not be thrilled with... I had to read it for my book club (...which normally picks much more intelligent and interesting books). As I mentioned to the person selecting the book when she solicited comments about her short list of options, I've never been tempted to read a Picoult book. I doubt that I shall read another.

The short summary is this: after her parents' separation and divorce, Faith White starts talking to God (who she sees as a woman and calls "her Guard"). Faith starts healing people and develops what appears to be Stigmata. Divorce, medical things, custody battle. In short, complications ensue for father, mother, daughter, and the hot Southern television guy that's supposed to be proving Faith to be a fraud if he wasn't falling for her mom.

My irritation at this book exists on many levels. As far as being pertinent in a review, here are a few. Oh, and I'm not too concerned about spoiling things for anyone reading this review, as I hope you don't pick up this waste of trees, so if you really don't want me to spoil the incredibly obvious and uninteresting ending... Don't read any further.

1. This was an incredibly formulaic book... It's as though Picoult had worked out a system for churning out books with interchangeable characters geared to a female marketplace (Working on her seventeenth book and she's only 42, is she? You don't say!). Names and details were changed, but otherwise it was like you might see: [Insert protective mother example here!:] [Insert love scene here!:] [Insert courtroom drama here!:] I'm betting that if I picked up another Picoult book, I'd find myself in a book with the names and situations slightly changed, but ultimately, the exact same outline.

2. For a book that is essentially beach reading, it took itself way too seriously. You realize mass markets are made for beach totes, right? That's the level of the writing, the intricacy of the characters, etc. I have nothing against beach reading or silly books, believe me. I find them to be delightful when that's what you want. But this book wants to pretend that it's about religion and protecting children... and funnily enough, she gets way more preachy about what children need in the courtroom scenes rather than being preachy about the religion (where everyone seems to be rational and accepting, aside from one small spectacle on Larry King). Oh and speaking about the focus on children...

3. For a book where characters kept insisting that the main story here (be it in the media frenzy, hospital scenes, or custody case) was about Faith (the child), I actually didn't think Picoult paid much attention to Faith until the last page of the book. (And then it was to do something incredibly inconsistent with the story she was writing.) Instead, the real drama centered around Mariah, the mother. (Maybe because Picoult is aiming for a middle-aged female market of wives and mothers, who want to know that just because they're not a gold-star mom and life isn't going smoothly, they're still great and could have a happy ending?) Picoult put way more effort into the relationship between Mariah and the tele-atheist Ian (though certainly not enough to convince us that their coupling is anything but unbelievable). Faith just wanders in occasionally to talk about drowned kittens and spurt blood from her hands and side.

4. I didn't find any of the characters to be deep or complicated... Or particularly likable. The mother is needy and spineless. The grandmother is a stereotype of a strong grandmother figure. The father is an adultering asshole that the writer wants to pretend like she's not depicting as an ass, so she throws in a moment or two where he sees other kids and misses Faith, or he worries a bit about diving right into a new family. The tele-atheist is way too simplified, would never actually be interested in Faith's mom, and his big secret was incredibly obvious. And for a story where "everything is uncovered" in these people's lives by detectives and media snoops, they conveniently miss a few things which, surprisingly enough, benefits the characters you're supposed to be rooting for.

5. Picoult wants you to think she's giving you a book where things might not be what they seem, and issues are complicated... She just doesn't want to put the effort into writing that book. There came a point where I stopped and wondered if Picoult was ballsy enough to do something (aka make this not about a kid hearing God, but make this about whether or not Faith or Mariah was lying and was mentally unstable). But that was a fleeting moment. I then remembered what a predictable book this had been up to that point and sure enough, we had to endure a hundred pages or so of courtroom scenes where Picoult desperately wanted us to think that the happily ever after for mother/daughter was in jeopardy.

Those are just a few things that bothered me. Thankfully, this book club meeting isn't for another month or so. I'll rant here and to my friends for a few more days, but perhaps by the time we meet, I'll have come up with something constructive to say or have thought of some interesting questions to pose for discussion. But right now, the only thing I'm left wondering is how many times Picoult watched Contact and how hard she thought about covering up the idea that Ian's character was really just Matthew McConaughey playing for the other side?


Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School

As a person considering business school, this was an obvious read for me. A timely insider account is worth quite a lot -- and given the current economic crisis, people definitely want to examine the worth of a Harvard MBA and its role on Wall Street.

Philip Delves Broughton wrote Ahead of the Curve to chronicle his two years at Harvard Business School. He didn't come from a finance background -- in fact, he was Bureau Chief for The Daily Telegraph in Paris -- and he insists that he didn't go to business school with the intention of writing a book about the experience. With two kids (one of which was born during the course of his time at HBS) and a wife, he decided to take the plunge and to to business school because he saw the Harvard MBA as his "in" to the business world. It certainly doesn't take an MBA to know the prestige of the Harvard brand, and as Broughton saw newspapers as a dying medium, he knew it was time for a change.

Broughton gives a very honest and clear account of his personal experience at HBS (and the fact that it's a personal experience is important to keep in mind)... Discussing his classes, explaining the case method, going over the general structure of his time as a student, quoting the professors and administration in depth as they talk about the students' futures as the elite of the business world. He shares basic business ideas and examples of cases and projects. (The first big group project of "Crimson Greetings" where a group simulates the running of a greeting card company affirmed all of my worst fears about group projects in b-school.) I could have done with a lot more on the actual goings-on of b-school and his classes, but I thought he made good use of his time and I never felt like he was spending unwarranted time on these scenes.

But time and time again, he reminders the readers that he is not one of "them"... He is different from a majority of his classmates and don't you forget it. He's older and he comes from an incredibly different background, so he automatically puts himself in the position of observer, even as you want him to succeed in classes where his lack of business experience means he's clearly got to catch up. (This is perhaps important for younger people reading this who are looking to Broughton for a description of life at b-school... You definitely need to remember that he's a very different person from the average single 27-year-old that applies.) He's ever the reporter and he's often asking whether or not anyone else is concerned with how tactical they've become in their time at HBS. He gives an example when he takes a class that is attended by both HBS and Kennedy School students -- the professor asks whether or not a company should sell and automatically, Broughton gives the business school response of "yes" without taking into account the personal feelings or emotions of the business owner. He realizes just how much his mindset has changed as he approaches business decisions and it rather frightens him. Of course, with the amount of discussion he gives to being an ethical and moral person in business, I was rather surprised that he gave the b-school response at all. He's very concerned with the idea of not selling out and becoming a consultant, sacrificing his time with his family for money. While he came to business school to make a better life for himself and his family, to bring about a career change, and to speak the language of business, Broughton also emphasizes that he didn't get a summer job and he didn't receive any job offers upon graduation. From his perspective, he simply wasn't willing to give up his family for a career, but he points out that a great many of his classmates were. They accepted finance and consulting positions in droves, convinced that these with the doors to opportunity that Harvard had given them.

While Broughton clearly doesn't approve of these sacrifices and choices (more on his classmates later), I think it's important to note that this is very much Broughton talking here. He is a man who wants to be a good husband and father, which is honorable, but that means he often quotes the speakers who say they didn't get enough time with their kids. Those quotes rang true for him and influenced his decisions. While Broughton might have thought that HBS was pushing him to a future of earning lots of money and disappearing from his family, any credible reader knows to take this with a grain of salt. HBS is clearly interested in giving its students the ability to make decisions for themselves, and supplying them with the contacts and opportunities to join the business world. HBS is concerned with creating business leaders, and while HBS might describe itself in grand and prideful language, I often wanted to tell Broughton to give it a rest on the critique. You go to HBS for the brand and the alumni network, and if you don't know that when you go in, then you haven't done your research. And there's a reason for the prestige, even if sometimes it is a circle of business elite Harvard alums giving the leg up to other alums. Harvard clearly teaches confidence, and when entering the business world, that seems to be one of the most valuable lessons. (In light of recent economic events, that's scary, right?)

In the end, Broughton never seemed to "buy in" to HBS the way that some alums do (which I suppose one could hardly do if writing a book about the experience, or it would just be a "yay Harvard!" piece), but he clearly left the experience with a new way to view the world. He became an entrepreneur in thought and deed, and he would certainly tell you that he did manage to keep his soul in the process, even though some people might see this kind of expose as a bit of a betrayal of HBS. He's rather critical in his closing remarks about how he would change the HBS administration, and he talks a lot about the Harvard hype, but despite his disapproval for the career choices of his classmates, he does a rather good job of describing the diversity found in the class. He attributes a great deal of his learning experience at Harvard to this exposure to people from many different backgrounds, and he ends the book with many quotes from people in his class, summarizing the things they took away from Harvard (and they seem to have a great deal more good to say about HBS than Broughton).

So... My opinion on his opinion on HBS? Ultimately, I thought this was a good book when you understand that this is a single person's experience. In my mind, this is about on par with asking people who are currently in business school about their experiences. (The trade off to not being able to ask specific questions comes with the fact that no sane b-school attendee would be able to speak at such length about their courses.) If you're considering business school, definitely read this book.


The Victoria Vanishes

So, normally, when I'm weighing the differences between book-cataloging websites, I think that GoodReads trumps LibraryThing, or at least most of the time. But LibraryThing will give me free advanced reading copies of books and that's pretty sweet.

The Victoria Vanishes is apparently the sixth book in a series that fall under the "Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery" series title. Apologies for not having read the previous few books, but when I requested it, I simply clicked to toss my hat into the ring for receiving a free English mystery, and I had no knowledge of the series' history.

I was charmed by our two main characters, Arthur Bryant and John May -- gentlemen detectives of a certain era, one of whom certainly merits the designation of "peculiar." Arthur Bryant is walking home, a bit sloshed, and lamenting his deteriorating powers of perception, when he forces himself to stop and observe everything around him. The one person he sees walking on the street is a woman walking into a pub -- and when she turns up dead (and the pub turns out not to exist in the present day), he wants to look into it... and finds quite a case of what appears to be a lonely hearts killer, preying on middle-aged women in pubs.

I might have enjoyed this more if I had actually read the books in order, because clearly we're coming to the end of this dynamic duo (as they are aging fellows), but I was still pleased with them, perhaps even enough so that I might read another of their mysteries. Bryant was the main character here, so I'm not sure if we alternate between May and Bryant stealing the spotlight. I liked May quite a bit, and I'm not sure if certain revelations that we come to in this book are hinted at before now. Such are the questions ones has when starting at the end rather than the beginning.

In any case, I sped through this book in about three days and it made for a nice Sunday morning to spend in bed.


A Taste of the Unexpected

Oh Roald Dahl. A fun little book that made for a great subway read (finished in a single day's commute). There are three stories in this little collection, two of which were amusing (though not great), but the middle story was really fun.

The first story involves good food, wine, and a bet. As the reader, you know what the outcome will be all along, but I still liked the dialogue between characters as a father tries to convince his daughter to let him bet her hand in marriage to an odious little man, as he's convinced they can't lose.

The third story features a young man who is lured to a rather creepy little boarding house... and unsurprisingly, creepiness continues. Again, one isn't surprised by the outcome.

But the second story was really the gem, I thought. We are presented with Mr. and Mrs. Foster. Mrs. Foster has a fear of being late -- to the point where the word "fear" hardly covers it. She is terrified of missing trains, theater curtains, and appointments. As a result, she is always ready to leave at least half an hour earlier than is necessary. But Mr. Foster is another story. Mr. Foster has a bit of what appears to be a cruel streak in him that takes advantage of this fear in his wife. He is always just late enough to rattle her nerves, but never quite enough to send her into hysterics. Because she is a well-bred lady, she would never dream of calling out and rushing him along, but it means that every time they try to go anywhere, she always ends up with the terrible fear that they will be late.

Now, Mr. and Mrs. Foster are an older couple, living in a multi-story building in New York. They keep servants, clearly have money, and their only daughter has moved to France, which means that Mrs. Foster has never been able to meet her three grandchildren, who she adores from afar -- but Mr. Foster has agreed to let Mrs. Foster go alone to Paris for a six week visit. You might think that she can be as early as she would like, yes? That might be true... if Mr. Foster had not insisted on accompanying her to the airport to see her off.

This story was such wicked fun. Dahl has sketched a couple where the husband knows exactly what buttons to push to set off his wife, and when she's such an inoffensive person, you despair right along with her as he dawdles, making them later and later. But of course, what's wonderful about Dahl is that you know the wicked always get their comeuppance...


Otherwise Pandemonium

I read this a few years ago when I first started purchasing the Pocket Penguins, but recently, I needed a bit of a jump-start while reading another book that seemed to be taking a while, and so I plucked this from the shelf for some quick subway reading.

Otherwise Pandemonium consists of two short stories written by Nick Hornby, both of which are quite amusing.

The first is, in fact, called "Otherwise Pandemonium," where a teenage boy acquires a VCR with strange properties. Rather than simply record what he requests, it is able to keep on fast-forwarding... to the point where he can watch the news up to weeks in advance. The question is, with the ability to see into the future, what happens when one sees something they would rather not?

The story is interesting in and of itself, but what really makes it (as what often makes Hornby stories and novels) is the voice of the narrator. A young kid in Berkeley, he has enough to deal with simply by virtue of being a teenager. His mom is a single parent, who he loves, but often gets on his nerves. He gets angry when she tells him that he's arranged a carpool for him to his band practice... Until, of course, he realizes that it's with Martha, a hot girl from school.
This is my favorite story of the two, mostly because I really loved the narrator. His tone was great and his perspective was realistic (such as where he stops and realizes he's telling the story badly because it's all out of order), and Nick Hornby really has a gift for creating delightful young men that might not have it all figured out, but we still find them endearing.

The second story in this little book is "Not a Star," where a mother finds out that her son is an actor in porn films. A nosey neighbor drops off a note ("Does he get this from his Dad?!? You've kept it quiet if he does!!!!") and a copy of the tape on the narrator's doorstep, claiming that her husband saw it at a buddy's house. Now, one can imagine the amazing ridiculousness of the situation. As a rather repressed mother who pretty much stopped thinking about her son's penis after his birth (and then just used it as a means of affirming "it's a boy!"), to now be presented with this tape is a lot for her to handle. Another thing that's hard to handle is seeing the tape and... well... seeing exactly why her big boy has a future in that industry.
Hornby is great at capturing the incredible awkwardness here (being British certainly helps, I imagine), and it's certainly not your usual topic for a family meeting.

Overall, a lovely little volume... as are most of the Pocket Penguins.


Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

I know, I know... I picked this up on a whim once I heard about the new movie coming out. Not exactly the best reason for reading a biography.

The movie The Duchess is loosely based on this biography of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. I knew the movie wouldn't necessarily be faithful to the biography, and so, I wanted to read the bio first and have all the facts.

What I found was a delightful biography about a complex and interesting woman who was incredibly influential during her time. When you look back at women in history, one often thinks that even the truly interesting and famous women of the past seemed to have certain limitations given their social spheres. But the power this woman held unofficially is remarkable! A real politician, she knew how to sway votes and create coalitions. And beyond that, I think you'll find that the actual biography is really written quite well, with a view to keep things moving despite the great depth of information being presented.

I can almost assure you, though, that given the economic status of the country at the present time, we'll probably see a great deal less of the whole "Georgiana was constantly in amazing debt and always borrowing money from her friends" storyline. There's always such focus on the romance for these period pieces (I say this as though I dislike that! ha!), but I hope the film won't trivialize how powerful a woman Georgiana was in her time. Sure, she had great influence on fashion, but that shouldn't trivialize the influence she had over politics. In fact, it probably facilitated the latter, given that it made her popular and gave her greater access to people with power. In any case, I quite enjoyed this biography and heartily recommend it.

Oh, and Amanda Foreman published this when she was 25 years old. Wow.


Post-film update:

So, I actually didn't mind the film. It certainly wasn't the book, but just one look at the previews affirmed that one. You knew they would want to draw as many Diana comparisons as possible, if only because there are certain similarities that are too tempting. Its objective was to condense everything and pull out the juicier bits... not to accurately reflect that the affair with Grey happened when she was older or that she was constantly in debt, begging money from her husband and using her friend/his live-in-lover to help on that front.

It was a very Hollywood depiction of her life, focusing on the big parts. Love, sex, and ultimate "triumph." We knew what would be lost in the translation (though I must say, the whole rape scene was a little surprising to me, despite the clearly awkward relationship between this married couple). And when you saw that Keira Knightley was playing Georgiana, there was no way they'd be showing her enlarged eye. After the description of how she died, though, I'm glad we were spared that. It sounds all too horrifying.

But anyway, the movie was as expected... I only wish that they had emphasized her political power more than they had... something to do with her canvassing and the potentially dangerous situations that it put her in. That was what made her a really remarkable figure in my eyes, as women didn't enjoy that kind of political influence for another century!


Lust in Translation: Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee

I read a small blurb about this book when it was first published in hardcover and for whatever reason, I actually marked down the date that it would come out in paperback so I could be sure to get it and read it. Whatever the driving force for acquiring the book, I've been reading it off and on (mostly off) since April... To the point where the book has a rather noticeable pen shaped bulge dividing the book almost in half where my pen rested for most of the three months that it sat on my bookshelf under a couple of other books.

That being said, it's a rather quick read (when you are actually reading it) and Druckerman's fairly genial tone that speeds you through. She keeps a brisk pace and doesn't involve herself in the topic beyond certain amusing interactions with the interviewees (like when she's slightly miffed that one Lothario has ruled her out as one of his potential wives based on age and weight)... And what's she's come up with is an interesting, slightly detached look at infidelity in various countries and cultures.

Now, you have to keep in mind that given the subject matter, the people she's speaking to are people whose lives have probably been affected by infidelity... People who are engaged in affairs, have been engaged in affairs, dealt with a significant other's affair, have multiple wives, keep mistresses, are mistresses, enjoy occasional flings, encourage occasional flings, are gigolos, visit prostitutes, are prostitutes (either full or part time), run support groups for infidelity, are private detectives specializing in proving infidelity, are people employed to put an end to a spouse's infidelity, or study any or all of these items above. Given this litany of interviews, you start feeling like everyone is cheating on everyone -- or at least most of the world is. The people who were the worst at dealing with it were, unsurprisingly, the Americans. In one horror couple, the husband made the wife recount every meeting, every message exchanged, every look... And will demand this recount on a frequent basis... And years later, still hadn't gotten over it while his wife lived in constant terror and regret. These folks seemed like great candidates for divorce IMHO. Some marriages aren't worth saving and I think God would agree on that one.

It's a relatively fascinating topic, particularly because this dealt with it in a rather sterile, conceptual form. There were few accounts like the American psychos. Most people didn't have multiple wives or sleep with new people every night. Lots of these people had an affair every now and again (or had one or two in their lives), and no one (again, except Americans) talked about how they were worried for their immortal souls as a result. No one seemed to think twice about an omnipotent God being aware of their every move... Most people were just hoping their families didn't know and that their spouse was kept in the dark, thus shielded from harm. Whether or not they were shielded from harm is debatable, but really, most people in this book weren't necessarily bad people... Though I suppose that's debatable too, isn't it?

In any case, I'm glad that I read the book and I think Druckerman did a fine job with it. With limited (reliable) data on infidelity, she provided thought-provoking portraits of individuals in different cultures that might be somewhat stereotyping, but she was careful to try and keep discussion balanced. But yeah... You do kind of wonder, after reading a book like this, if human beings were ever meant to be faithful and if we're doing ourselves any favors by strictly adhering to such a plan.


Lost City Radio

Hurray for wonderful book club members that create interesting lists and select good books.

I enjoyed Lost City Radio. I didn't really adore it, but I read it quickly and found very little fault with it. It struck me as a novel that junior high or high school teachers might encourage their students to read as a means of introducing them to certain historical events, and it would be an excellent way to do this. And I don't mean that as a slight that some people intend when they assign books to a certain age group or something. I'm not saying that only eighth-graders should read this, but it made me somewhat feel like I was back in school and about to study a South American civil war.

On top of that, I often find a certain similarity in the tone of stories that focus on missing loved ones, particularly when we're talking about situations like this where a Latin/South American country suffers civil war and many disappear. It's horrific and sad and so very upsetting to live with the knowledge that there will never be closure to the feeling of loss... It's one of those things that I cannot possibly comprehend and I hope I never will.

So, the story. This novel focuses on three characters in an unnamed country, weaving back and forth through time as we eventually learn about what (predictably) links them together. While our focus remains on these and a handful of others, the two main locations are the jungle and the city. The circumstances of the civil war and the country are vague, which means we bring in our own vague knowledge of many Latin/South American countries that have experienced civil wars, dictators, rebel armies, and mass disappearances that foster a culture of fear. And because of that, we automatically have ourselves a scenario and we're free to focus on what this means to our characters and what it does to change their lives.

First and foremost, we have Norma. Norma hosts "Lost City Radio," a Sunday radio program where callers phone with names and descriptions of missing loved ones. While her face might not be known to the country, it's practically impossible for her to speak outside of the radio without being identified. The people love her. She is repeatedly stopped and handed lists of names to be read on her show. Lost City Radio is often the site for staged reunions and everyone in the country seems to tune in, desperate to locate their own missing family, friends, and loved ones.

Norma's own husband is one of the missing, though she cannot speak his name on the air without fear of some action being taken. Possibly a member of the rebel group, the IL, Rey was a man who was taken into custody and imprisoned on the very night that he met Norma. He was released and met her once more a year later, so Norma returns to this fact constantly as an excuse for why she cannot quite let go. His ability to disappear and reappear in her life became so ingrained with their relationship that even now, ten years later, she cannot help but hope. She does not know how involved he was with a rebel movement and deluded herself into believing that her husband was a man who kept no secrets.

The third character that we have is young Victor, an eleven-year-old boy who is sent by his village to see Norma and bring her the list of their village's missing. His mother has just died, he never knew his father, and his teacher (who accompanied him to the city) appears to have abandoned him at the radio station, so Norma takes charge of him and it is at that point where we begin our story.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, though most everything came as a given in the plot. A weaving storyline will do that, as you assume certain things to fill in the gaps and then, when you double-back, your assumptions are confirmed. Thus, you're thankful that Alacron is a good storyteller and you're compelled to finish the novel based on that alone, because you know what's going to happen. I found this to be one of those books where you don't shed tears, and yet you still feel sadness pervading every page. It's a constant emotion in the book, despite small bursts of anxiety, fear and even some joy, as we're looking back on events that cannot be changed, and it's only once we reach the end that we look forward to what can be done.


Scales of Justice

There were two pieces in this little book -- one that was autobiographical and a second that was a short story featuring the author's best-known creation, Horace Rumpole. Now, I knew nothing of that until after finishing the book -- apparently, "Rumpole of the Bailey" was a television show created by Sir John Mortimer, and it spun off into things like short stories (aka what's featured here). I actually preferred the bit of autobiography that discussed Sir John Mortimer's past and how he got into law. A quick read, to be sure, but that's the nature of these little Pocket Penguins. Not quite enough to make me seek out anything else, though, with any real speed.

Oh a trivial note, I love these little Pocket Penguin books. They're so wonderfully convenient to slip into one's purse when it's weighted down with so many other things these day. I kept thinking that 4 out of 5 chiropractors would probably recommend them to keep the weight out of one's bag.


On Chesil Beach

This is only my second Ian McEwan book and I'm in awe. How can something so small be so poignant and powerful? Just over 200 pages with a generous typeset in a small little volume... and I know that I've read a story that I'll remember for ages.

I started this yesterday, having waited for a day when I could really sit down and just devour the book in one gulp. Well, that plan was thwarted when my four hour window for reading became one, but with that single hour, some subway time, and my lunch hour today, I've already finished.

The actual focus of the novel is on the wedding night of a young couple in England, 1962... but we jump back and forth between that night and all that has led up to that night in the lives of Florence and Edward.

It's beautiful. It's heartbreaking. It's now going to be the new book I tell everyone to read.


Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

It's not that I didn't like this book... Okay, that's exactly what it is. But the real issue I had with Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is this: I've either had every conversation in this book (which I enjoyed more than these essay versions of them) or I've walked away from the conversation because it didn't interest me in the slightest. I can name at least ten people I know who could have written this book (give or take an article or two), and probably could have written it better (including the person whose choice this book is for my book club).

I didn't dislike it all, though. It was amusing in parts. It's just that I didn't find it to be wonderfully clever even though it was clearly trying very hard to be.

I could talk a lot about why I didn't like this book for little reasons, but on the whole, I think my distaste for it was rooted in the fact that I couldn't simply read it at my leisure, picking it up and putting it down to read a single article and then switch to something else, because we're reading this for book club and thus my reading has a deadline. Had I been able to just skip an article (such as the mind-numbing article on basketball) or stop reading one (like when he made repetitive references to Sigur Ros and Devo as though they were symbols of uniqueness, only to make them ordinary by constantly referencing them) so I could move on to something else or read an essay every few days, then I probably would have a kinder outlook on this book.

But here's the kicker as to why I can't simply dismiss this book. Do you know the game "Table Topics"? Or have you read the If...? books? They work on the same premise... posing a "what if" kind of question that you're supposed to then discuss with people. This may seem lame, because it implies that you can't have a natural conversation with your friends without the assistance of cards, but I found them amusing in college... and probably still would, given a particularly creative bunch of friends and a few bottles of wine. "If you could only listen to one album again for the rest of your life, what would it be?" "If you had to kill an innocent person to end world hunger, could you?" "If you were exiled from your current country, what new country would you pick as your new home?" "Which famous dead person would you most want to have a dinner conversation with?" "If you could either sleep with one famous person and never tell anyone or give the impression of a deep and loving relationship to the world but never actually sleep with them... which scenario would you pick?" (I actually think he did pose this question somewhere in the book...)

Anyway... there's one "essay" in this book that's my favorite part, not just because it's funny, but because it seems like it unwittingly captures the whole essence of the other articles -- or at least distills what good this book can accomplish. It's a small section of twenty three questions that the author would pose to a person and their answers would determine whether or not this could be his soulmate. Think of Table Topic and If...? questions (like those above) and multiply them by ten on a specific and weird scale... then you'd get the kind of questions that he asks.

For example, here's a fairly ordinary but still interesting one:

Every person you have ever slept with is invited to a banquet where you are the guest of honor. No one will be in attendance except you, the collection of your former lovers, and the catering service. After the meal, you are asked to give a fifteen-minute speech to the assembly. What do you talk about?

And here's a weird one that I quite enjoy:

Defying all expectation, a group of Scottish marine biologists capture a live Loch Ness Monster. In an almost unbelievable coincidence, a bear hunter in the Pacific Northwest shoots a Sasquatch in the thigh, thereby allowing zoologists to take the furry monster into captivity. These events happen on the same afternoon. That evening, the president announces he may have thyroid cancer and will undergo a biopsy later that week. You are the front page editor of The New York Times: What do you play as the biggest story?

And one more for kicks:

Someone builds and optical portal that allows you to see a vision of your own life in the future (it’s essentially a crystal ball that shows a randomly selected image of what your life will be like in twenty years). You can only see into this portal for thirty seconds. When you finally peer into the crystal, you see yourself in a living room, two decades older than you are today. You are watching a Canadian football game, and you are extremely happy. You are wearing a CFL jersey. Your chair is surrounded by books and magazines that promote the Canadian Football League, and there are CFL pennants covering your walls. You are alone in the room, but you are gleefully muttering about historical moments in Canadian football history. It becomes clear that—for some unknown reason—you have become obsessed with Canadian football. And this future is static and absolute; no matter what you do, this future will happen. The optical portal is never wrong. This destiny cannot be changed. The next day, you are flipping through television channels and randomly come across a pre-season CFL game between the Toronto Argonauts and the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Knowing your inevitable future, do you now watch it?

Okay, last one, for real:

Let us assume you met a rudimentary magician. Let us assume he can do five simple tricks--he can pull a rabbit out of his hat, he can make a coin disappear, he can turn the ace of spades into the Joker card, and two others in a similar vein. These are his only tricks and he can't learn any more; he can only do these five. HOWEVER, it turns out he's doing these five tricks with real magic. It's not an illusion; he can actually conjure the bunny out of the ether and he can move the coin through space. He's legitimately magical, but extremely limited in scope and influence. Would this person be more impressive than Albert Einstein?

These make me think that Chuck Klosterman missed his true calling as a "Table Topics for Gen X" writer. ALL of his essays seem to serve one purpose for me: they're mildly interesting, but they make me think of more interesting things that I then actually want to discuss with other people.

Weirdest thing of all, but I actually think this might be a good book for discussion at book club... not for discussing the merits of the book, but because Klosterman's random topics (the true meaning of Saved by the Bell, the weird interest he has in people who have met serial killers and lived, etc.) will hopefully inspire other things we want to talk about in the Table Topics sense of things.

My mother tried to make the point that perhaps Klosterman was really intending to inspire conversation with these topics. At first, I found it hard to believe that Klosterman, who writes about saved by the Bell and cartoon cereal characters, is really trying to inspire discussion... but that's totally it. I might find his writing to be somewhat lacking, but he really is creating a jumping-off-point for people who might find these topics to be of interest.

Oh, and if you don't pick the Loch Ness Monster, then I don't understand what you could possibly be thinking.



I can't remember where I first heard of Fingersmith, but for whatever reason, it has been on my list of books to read for ages. I know that its place was confirmed only after seeing it amongst the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, but that wasn't where I first heard of this lesbian Gothic novel set in England, circa 1862. The novel is written in three sections and concerns two young women whose lives are drawn to each other in a strange web of intricate plots, though by my earlier labeling, you might also guess that they feel drawn to the other in more complicated ways, too.

I won't discuss the storyline much, because I don't wish to give away anything about the exact plot. I'll drop a few descriptive topics, though. There's a series of twists (the first of which took me off guard but the next few, I felt more prepared for) and the book is full of the classic Gothic novel staples: dark and isolated country homes, orphans without a clue of their real origins, pickpockets, families of thieves, babies fed on gin, cruel uncles, insane asylums, roguish villains, fortunes, etc.

I think I can say with some assurance that I didn't truly love this book -- that is, I wouldn't give this as a gift to any of my girlfriends (and anyway, they might get the wrong end of the stick with the topic of the novel if I were to tell them they simply must read it) -- but I did quite enjoy the experience of reading it. I suppose my quick pace might even merit the term "devour." It's a very compelling as it twists and turns and then doubles back again. In general, I liked the characters that populated this novel, particularly the two main girls. The roguish Gentleman was one-note, though as a writing technique, one doesn't necessarily mind, as we realize his uses and his fate fairly quickly. There was no real reason for Waters to waste her time developing him when the women in the novel were much more interesting. I'm not entirely convinced of the lesbian coupling, but that does appear to be Sarah Waters' focus with a few of her novels.

On the whole, I find myself pleased. I don't know why I'm drawn to Gothic novels in the summer. All this sunshine must unnerve me, or I need to balance reading in a bright park with reading about dark estates. And I'm not entirely sure that I believe this merits a place on the 1001 list (and perhaps might not have gotten that place had it not been for the lesbian storyline), but it was a good read and I certainly don't regret having had it on my list.


When You Are Engulfed in Flames

While I certainly won't call When You Are Engulfed in Flames the best David Sedaris collection that you can purchase for yourself, I will say that any David Sedaris is worth reading. Via Goodreads, I say four stars, but via LibraryThing, I say three and a half. (Come on, Goodreads, get with the half-star program.)
The observation I have for this collection is that with Mr. Sedaris giving up drinking, drugs, and smoking... his stories seem to be a bit more tame. Much more focus on his boyfriend Hugh or stories tinged with a bit of melancholy. The NY Times mentioned the story about his parents' art collection, which is perhaps one of the better crafted stories. My favorite, however, is called "Keeping Up" -- which talks about couples arguing on vacation and features Mr. Sedaris rehearsing his "I'm leaving you" speech to his boyfriend after Hugh's fast walking leaves Sedaris lost and alone in a zoo in Sydney.
In general, it's nice to see Hugh making more of an appearance in Sedaris' stories. Sedaris' previous volumes have focused so much on his siblings that when you realize how long he and Hugh have been together, you're a bit surprised that it's taken Sedaris this long to mine his significant other for material. In the past, he's popped up every now and then, but he's a much more substantial figure in this collection. As with Sedaris' other works, though, one can't help but wonder how his friends and relatives deal with having details of their lives published and sold. Unlike his parents and sisters, though, Sedaris consistently paints Hugh in a good light and one can't help but wonder how Sedaris can function without Hugh at times in this collection.
In any case, while you might want to wait to purchase a paperback version, this collection does have several good chuckles. I might not have been struggling for breath as I have once or twice in the past ("Six to Eight Black Men" comes to mind), but I still think that anyone who enjoys Sedaris should not miss this most recent offering.


The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness in Africa

With all due respect to my book club's selector this month, I must admit, I wasn't gung-ho about this book when I agreed to it. When I went to purchase it, I even hoped that the little bookstore in my neighborhood wouldn't have it so I could buy myself an Agatha Christie novel for that weekend instead. But it was there and so I bought it... and I quickly realized that I had underestimated this book and the author. Josh Swiller did a great job with this. It wasn't necessarily the events in his story that kept me going at a steady pace, but the narration of the author.

You know the story will be heartbreaking and you know that Peace Corp volunteers are often thrown into situations where they're expected to make a difference in the face of incredible odds. But really made the book for me is the fact that you just really like Josh Swiller. He has a wonderfully snarky sense of humor. Born and raised in Manhattan, Josh lost pretty much all of his hearing by age 4. But rather than surround him with a deaf community, his parents didn't really discuss it much and he (and one of his three brothers) went to regular schools, relying on lip-reading and hearing aids. He didn't even meet many deaf people (again, besides his brother) until he was in his twenties. He fights with his brothers (particularly Zev) and he admits that he might have used the sensitive soul angle to get laid in college, but after attending Yale, he wasn't sure what to do with himself. So he signed up for the Peace Corp... and he was shipped off to a small village in Zambia.

If only for his style, I recommend this book. Unlike some people who write memoirs of going to Africa and having their lives changed or being deaf, Swiller is first and foremost a guy you can relate to, and it's only on the second level that he happens to be deaf. He articulates his experience as a deaf person in ways that I have never encountered. Perhaps the most interesting point is that he finds his deafness minimized in Africa. People make a point of speaking directly to this important white man in their community, so he can read their lips with greater ease. Otherwise, he's just another white guy in Africa who realizes that he doesn't know how to achieve his lofty goals and so he's got to adapt to the situation and do what he can.
So I say "Well done, Swiller," and thanks to this month's book club selector for making me read a book that I thoroughly enjoyed and wouldn't have otherwise picked up.


The Eyre Affair


Alright. I'm leaving the five star ranking. I've been waffling back and forth to changing it to four, but really, for the creativity alone, this book deserves notice.

The Eyre Affair is Jasper Fforde's first novel, and what a novel it is. For starters, this is a dream for the average person who calls themselves a book lover... a literary fantasy where the boundary between the world in books and the "real" world is decidedly thinner than we think. For instance, in this novel, Thursday Next (our intrepid heroine) fights the forces of evil (archvillain Acheron Hades). Why is he evil? Well, with the use of a prose portal (developed by Thursday's own uncle), Acheron plans on entering the original manuscripts of beloved novels and murdering characters from within, thus removing them from all published versions of those works. That might be the gist of it, but that doesn't even touch on how interesting this world is... and so I've also pasted here whatever was printed on B&N:

The word "unique" is overused and frequently misused. Here, however, is an instance where it truly applies. But to call The Eyre Affair a unique first novel featuring a fearless fictional adventurer barely begins to tell the story. When asked to summarize his creation is a single sentence, Jasper Fforde described it as "a literary detective thriller with romantic overtones, mad-inventor uncles, aunts trapped in Wordsworth poems, global multinationals, scheming evildoers, an excursion inside the novel Jane Eyre, dodos, knight-errant-time-traveling fathers, and the answer to the eternal question: Who really wrote Shakespeare's plays?" Swindon, a traditionally tranquil English town, is the ironic setting for most of these oddball characters and peculiar goings-on; the year is 1985. Fforde spins his wildly imaginative crime caper in language every bit as ingenious as the madcap plot; his devilishly clever turns of phrase take the form of verbal puzzles, anagrams, and literary and cinematic in-jokes.

Long involved in the movie-making business, Fforde gives a starring role to Thursday Next, a captivating sleuth whose respect for literature matches that of her creator. The essence of Thursday's quest is the capture of Acheron Hades, a wily cad whose dastardly crime is murder of characters from the classics.

If that hasn't gotten you hooked, I don't know what to tell you. It's a really fun book to read. I'm going to keep re-reading the sequels now.


The first time I read this book, I was on a plane flying home from my freshman year at college for spring break. Aside from the fact that it was the first bit of reading I had selected for myself in quite a while (and let me tell you -- buying a hardcover book in college when it isn't for a class is a big deal), it was intelligent and creative and I remember looking up repeatedly and wondering why other other passengers on the plane weren't asking me why I was unable to contain my giddiness. "It's this wonderful book," I would have answered, showing them the cover but not relinquishing my hold.

Now I'm a little older and wiser, but while home this weekend and without a new book to read, I opted to re-read this one and I haven't felt disappointed by that decision yet. It may not be as mind-blowingly delightful as when I first discovered it, but I'm still thrilled with Fforde's incredibly original plotline.


Stumbling on Happiness

I was given this book by a friend who likened the style to Alain de Botton. While I don't agree with the comparison, I can understand that the genre bears certain similarities -- a nonfiction book with meandering tone, musing on a single topic -- but because this is primarily about psychology and the way we make decisions, I wouldn't really put these on the same shelf.
That being said, this was an interesting read... although I've been "currently-reading" this in bits for about a year now, so that might tell you something. It was an excellent subway read, because despite the fact that it's a psychology book, I never really felt like we were going too deep below the surface here, and so I could always put it down and pick it right back up again. I liked that every chapter starts with a quote from Shakespeare... that's a pretty quick and cheap way to gain points, I know, but whatever.
Here's the gist of it. Gilbert is trying to explain to us why we suck at projecting ourselves forward to predict how we'll feel in the future and we suck at remembering how we felt in the past, so we can't even really learn from our mistakes. If you're looking for an answer, you won't find it. I realized at one point towards the end that there were forty-something pages of footnotes, which left about twenty pages for Gilbert to come up with with some kind of summary or solution to this problem... and even when I thought that, I realized that his tone pretty much clues you in to the fact that you're not going to get anything to help you out here, besides encouragement that you should keep a bright outlook and pepper your own discussion with humor. If there's any suggestion to be had, it's along the lines of this: we ought to listen to each other more and learn from their experiences. If we're trying to make a decision that will affect our future, talk to people who have already made that decision (or better yet, people who are in one of the potential situations currently)... because really, we're not all so very dissimilar as people anyway (we usually dismiss others' experiences because we overestimate our uniqueness).
Gilbert keeps up a fairly playful tone that reminded me of teachers and professors who would slip in silly questions on a test or make amusing lists of things in their lectures. I suppose it's important to keep a pretty cute dialogues going, given the fact that he's basically telling us that chances are, we won't be as happy as we think we will... and when we are happy, we won't be happy long.

Here are a few quotes I pulled from the book (though I actually underlined quite a lot, as his tone really did lull me into that student mode):

We like to frolic in the best of all imaginary tomorrows--and why shouldn't we? After all, we fill our photo albums with pictures of birthday parties and tropical vacations rather than car wrecks and emergency-room visits because we want to be happy when we stroll down Memory Lane, so why shouldn't we take the same attitude toward our strolls up Imagination Avenue? Although imagining happy futures may make us feel happy, it can also have some trouble consequences. Researchers have discovered that when people find it easy to imagine an event, they overestimate the likelihood that it will actually occur. Because most of us get so much practice imagining good than bad events, we tend to overestimate the likelihood that good events will actually happen to us, which leads us to be unrealistically optimistic about our futures.

People want to be happy, and all the other things they want are typically means to that end.

Imagining "what it would feel like" sounds like a fluffy bit of daydreaming, but in fact, it is one of the most consequential mental acts we can perform, and we perform it every day. We make decisions about whom to marry, where to work, when to reproduce, where to retire, and we base these decisions in large measure on our beliefs about how it would feel if this event happened but that one didn't. Our lives may not always turn out as we wish or as we plan, but we are confident that if they had, then our happiness would have been unbounded and our sorrows thin and fleeting. Perhaps it is true that we can't always get what we want, but at least we feel sure that we know what to want in the first place.

...when we are selecting, we consider the positive attributes of our alternatives, and when we are rejecting, we consider the negative attributes.

Just as objects that are near to us in space appear to be more detailed than those that are far away, so do events that are near to us in time. ... When we think of events in the distant past or distant future we tend to think abstractly about why they happened or will happen, but when we think of events in the near past or near future we tend to think concretely about how they happened or will happen.

...most of us have a tough time imagining a tomorrow that is terribly different from today, and we find it particularly difficult to imagine that we will ever think, want, or feel differently than we do now.

We may see the world through rose-colored glasses, but rose-colored glasses are neither opaque nor clear. They can't be opaque because we need to see the world clearly enough to participate in it--to pilot helicopters, harvest corn, diaper babies, and all the other stuff that smart mammals need to do in order to survive and thrive. But they can't be clear because we need their rosy tint to motivate us to design the helicopters ("I'm sure this thing will fly"), plant the corn ("This year will be a banner crop"), and tolerate the babies ("What a bundle of joy!"). We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. Each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influences of the other, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.

...most people think they will regret foolish actions more than foolish inactions. But studies show that nine out of ten people are wrong. Indeed, in the long run, people of every age and in ever walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did...

It is only when we cannot change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience...

We try to repeat those experiences that we remember with pleasure and pride, and we try to avoid repeating those that we remember with embarrassment or regret. The trouble is that we often don't remember them correctly. ... Memory is not a dutiful scribe that keeps a complete transcript of our experiences, but a sophisticated editor that clips and saves key elements of an experience and then uses these elements to rewrite the story each time we ask to reread it.

...we tend to remember the best of times and the worst of times instead of the most likely of times...

...the average American moves more than six times, changes jobs more than ten times, and marries more than once, which suggests that most of us are making more than a few poor choices.

...if you are like most people, then like most people, you don't know you're like most people. Science has given us a lot of facts about the average person, and one of the most reliable of these facts it that the average person doesn't see herself as average.

We don't always see ourselves as superior, but we almost always see ourselves as unique. Even when we do precisely what others do, we tend to think that we're doing it for unique reasons. For instance, we tend to attribute other people's choices to features of the chooser ("Phil picked this class because he's one of those literary types"), but we tend to attribute our own choice to features of the options ("But I picked it because it was easier than economics"). We recognize that our decisions are influenced by social norms ("I was too embarrassed to raise my hand in class even though I was terribly confused"), but fail to recognize that others' decisions were similarly influenced ("No one else raised a hand because no one else was as confused as I was). We know that our choices sometimes reflect our aversions ("I voted for Kerry because I couldn't stand Bush"), but we assume that other people's choices reflect their appetites ("If Rebecca voted for Kerry, then she must have liked him). The list of differences is long, but the conclusion to be drawn from it is short: The self considers itself to be a very special person.

We are the only people in the world whom we can know from the inside. We experience our own thoughts and feelings but must infer that other people are experiencing theirs.

...we enjoy thinking of ourselves as special. Most of us want to fit in with our peers, but we don't want to fit in too well. We prize our unique identities, and research shows that when people are made to feel too similar to others, their moods quickly sour and they try to distance and distinguish themselves in a variety of ways. ... Because we value our own uniqueness, it isn't surprising that we tend to overestimate it.

But foresight is a fragile talent that often leaves us squinting, straining to see what it would be like to have this, go there, or do that. There is no simple formula for finding happiness. But if our great big brains do not allow us to go surefootedly into our futures, they at least allow us to understand what makes us stumble.


The Xanadu Adventure

It's funny, but I feel like a great deal of my childhood reading was wrapped up in Lloyd Alexander (this is no understatement if you wikipedia this guy and see just how prolific he was). I may have loved The Chronicles of Prydain but I really fell in love with Vesper Holly. To this day, "Vesper" is still in the running for baby names if I should ever have a little girl.
So a few weeks ago, I discovered the "Never-Ending Book Quiz" on Goodreads and I started thinking about all the good books that deserved trivia questions. And naturally, I thought of Vesper. So I went online to remember all the exact titles and there on the list was a book I had never read before... The Xanadu Adventure published in 2005. I was graduating college in 2005, so I suppose it isn't surprising that I wasn't searching the young readers' section for unread gems, but I was still surprised that I had not yet heard of this sixth Vesper Holly book, printed fifteen years after the fifth. I ordered it immediately from an amazon seller and a few days ago, it arrived.

In The Xanadu Adventure, you find all the little touches that have come to characterize Vesper Holly books for me... the random expedition to an exotic locale, the cliffhanger endings to the short chapters, the narrator Brinnie's tendency to jump to conclusions, Vesper's cool-headed sense of reason, and, of course, our arch-nemesis Dr. Helvitius. In this adventure, we set off in search of Troy, but instead, we find an artificial Xanadu created by the wealthy and ridiculous Dr. Helvitius (all the truly great villains are wealthy and ridiculous, you know). Oh, and we also find a whole civilization of people (amazingly enough, an undiscovered people who are clearly the descendants of escaped Trojans) that possess the key to deciphering the language the Weed is studying, which sent us off on this adventure in the first place.

As we've gone along in the Vesper Holly books, we've acquired a few characters that we can't seem to shake. In the beginning, it was just Vesper and her guardian Brinnie running from place to place. Then we found Smiler and Slider, handy twins that are characterized by their mechanical know-how (particularly when it comes to boats that are of questionable sea-worthiness) and brute strength. There's Aunt Mary, Brinnie's wife who is surprisingly resourceful and nimble, much to her husband's surprise. And let us not forget "the Weed," a young man with academic pursuits who stumbled into our story and Vesper's heart. I can't say that I don't enjoy the side characters, but there was something a little less complicated about Vesper and Brinnie on their own in foreign countries. The more characters we acquired, the closer I knew we were coming to an eventual end of the stories. We were weighted down with people and soon it would be too much for such a troupe to wander into adventure.

And even while Vesper was always a bright and energetic young woman, it's in this book more than any other that you realize time has passed and we're not dealing with static characters whose ages do not change. There's always something a little melancholy about watching a character you love grow up. It's not like Vesper's an old woman or anything, but even the idea of her actually getting married and having a child is a bit much for me. I suppose it was good of Alexander to let us know that she's taken care-of and that even in marital bliss, she won't be losing her spunkiness... but I don't know if I needed assurance on that front.

Alexander, however, might have... I hadn't known this before reading the book and writing this review, but apparently Alexander had a step-daughter (his wife's daughter, whom he adopted) who passed away in 1990 - the same year the fifth Vesper Holly book was published. I won't speculate more on that, but it does add a note of melancholy as to why it might have taken fifteen years to see Vesper's final adventure in print. I wrote the line about wikipedia-ing Lloyd Alexander, then realized I had never done this, despite how many of his books I have read. So I went ahead and looked him up in Wikipedia and apparently he died exactly a year ago today.

In any case, The Xanadu Adventure is certainly a worthy Vesper Holly send-off and for a short while, it made me smile to find myself in the crowded company of the characters I knew and loved... particularly that of Brinnie and Vesper. I hope that more children will come to love them, too, as Alexander's work should delight children for generations to come.


Why do New Yorkers seem rude?

From Smithsonian Magazine's May 2008 issue:
In my experience, many people believe that New Yorkers are smarter than other Americans, and this may actually be true. The majority of people who live in New York City were not born here. Indeed, more than a third were not born in the United States. New Yorkers, then, are people who left another place and came here, looking for something, which suggests that the population is preselected for higher energy and ambition.
Also for a willingness to forgo basic comforts. I grew up in California, where even middle-income people have a patio on which they can eat breakfast and where almost everyone has a car. In New York, only upper-income people enjoy those amenities. The others would like to share them. I sometimes get into conversations with taxi drivers, and since most of them are new to the city, I often ask them what they miss about the place they came from. Almost always, they name very ordinary pleasures: a slower pace of life, a café where they could sit around and talk to friends, a street where they could play kickball without getting run over. Those who miss these things enough will go back home. That means that the rest of us, statistically, are more high-strung, hungry and intent on long-term gains—traits that quite possibly correlate with intelligence.
This might just seem interesting to me since I live in New York and we're always looking for justification in paying more for our small apartments and groceries. In any case, read the rest of the article here at the Smithsonian Magazine website, or check out this month's issue.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Is it cliché to write about how I adored this book? I suppose it is, but it won't really stop me.

Nearly two years ago, I suggested The Book of Laughter and Forgetting for my book club. It was quite a success so this time around, I put forth The Unbearable Lightness of Being and I do hope that it draws out a similar reaction. This is the novel for which Kundera is best known, I suppose, and that does make quite a lot of sense. I'm not sure if I would term it as "better" but I certainly tore through it at a quicker speed. Some of its popularity might be attributable to the fact that it is quite sexy, too (though I've been warned away from the movie's extreme focus on those parts).

I must say, though, I felt so very much like a young woman in her twenties, underlining passages while reading on the subway and finding parallels to my own life and romance. The fact that I am a young woman in her twenties hardly made me feel any better about the matter, but I can't help it.

The style was lovely and the story was captivating. If you know anything about Czech history, I'm sure that it would help your reading, but even my minimal knowledge was enough to see me through. The most important thing was to embrace each of the four main characters, despite their very human faults. I found a bit of myself in each of them and while some people might find this novel to be a bit depressing or irritating, I find that there was tremendous beauty in it, far lovelier than anything that might feature a lesson learned or a saccharine sunset.



Ever felt guilty for the amount of paper required to make those books that you so quickly devour and then cast aside? Can't see the forest for your library? Eco-Libris is a website where you can offset your literary deposits. Through Eco-Libris, you can plant a tree for every book you read so that future generations can also enjoy that new-book feeling, rather than see trees via illustrations on their Kindles. $10 for 10 trees? Sounds like a better deal than the Borders 3 for 2 table.


The Secret of Lost Things

A literary mystery can be just the thing you need, particularly when you're sick and stuck at home over the weekend as I was, so it was delightful to find The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay on a Barnes & Noble table... A young redhead named Rosemary just starting her life in Manhattan by working at a bookstore and becoming involved in a secret that involves a lost Melville novel? Naturally, I purchased it on the spot.

But I'm sorry to say that there was one scene that seemed to rather exemplify the whole experience of reading this novel for me... and my summary is not for the faint of heart, so kids, turn back now. The scene is this: an ailing albino with an obsessive interest in the narrator manages (without any arm-twisting or pressure) to get her alone in the rare books room, where he ejaculates into her hand and then assumes an unearned intimacy to their relationship and conversation... shortly before the speedy conclusion to the story.

Granted, the reading of this book was a much less sticky situation, and to be fair, Rosemary/we didn't put up a struggle when she/we found ourselves being groped by our albino manager/reading this book. He asked if she was okay and then suggested that she might be "unsatisfied." I latched onto this word and found it hard to forget as the book spiralled into its quick conclusion. As the reader, I too felt unsatisfied (and not because of a poor sex scene). Perhaps "unsatisfied" isn't even the right word... "disappointed" is a better fit. The book didn't quite build up my sense of anticipation to make "unsatisfied" a qualifiable adjective for my feelings at the end of what was supposed to be a literary mystery.

I was disappointed on two levels... one, that the story had all the intriguing details and none of the complicated interconnectedness that one usually finds in a mystery... and two, that the writing was better than the tale being told and so the author's potential remained buried.

I found the tale at the heart of this novel a great draw in the beginning and a great let-down at the end. As a bibliophile, how could I really turn away from a story like this? A missing Melville novel and a young woman working in a labyrinthine bookstore? It taps into some daydream that literate young women have, kept on the shelf besides the one where we open a book store in a small town. The cast of characters seemed just odd enough for a literary mystery (aside from the open-hearted pre-operative transsexual named Pearl with her wealthy boyfriend)... mostly comprised of older men with various issues (which includes the aforementioned albino manager). In addition, the author brought a wealth of knowledge to the table about various subjects with the tantalizing idea that there might be a more fantastic secret to unearth. All the elements were there, why didn't it work?

Well, partially because the author wasn't trying to write The DaVinci Code or The Thirteenth Tale... the author ultimately decided to write about loss, whereas the book jacket promised adventure. Things did not connect, they remained in their own worlds and Rosemary just did her best to absorb all this information about loss and pain and frustration. One person's past did not converge with another's, the Melville novel did not turn up, the albino died. You can't blame this on the hype of marketing, because for a time, even Hay/Rosemary is caught up in research and is ducking behind bookshelves to eavesdrop on conversations. Perhaps Hay thought she was writing something more of a mystery before being unable to find a conclusion for that kind of story. In the usual literary mystery, all of these characters and detailed subjects should have been interwoven in a complex thread that made the main character realize everything was connected... but no. They weren't. All that Hay could come up with on this front was the knowledge that everyone was hungry for something they lost or never had... and each person dealt with this pain in a different way.

Putting aside my issues with the story (though really, by throwing in an albino, you're already on your way down, I don't care what kind of allusions you're making to Moby Dick), I should say that my true disappointment was with a writer who set us up with the promise of a literary mystery, allusions to other intriguing topics, and complicated characters... but then leaves us... unsatisfied.

Our young narrator cannot be to blame, but because of the coming-of-age factor, you knew from the get-go that nothing else would be solved, nothing would be revealed, and the lost thing that we would mourn was the chance an editor let go to help shape a better novel by getting the author to whittle down the scope a bit. I'm not asking to regain The Isle of the Cross or anything, but Rosemary was never going to see a bigger picture when she was too distracted by the stories around her. Topics like the Argentinian Dirty War are practically thrown in for color, illustrating what real loss is as a mother mourns her son who disappeared. A bigger, unifying idea like a lost novel was never going to come to anything. In the end, I felt like each character and topic was an unfinished short story that should have been explored more fully on its own, but instead we're left with blank pages instead of a Melville novel.

On that note, though, I might say that all is not lost in the reading of this novel. I did enjoy this author's writing style and as a result, I would be willing to read her work again. For all my quibbling between "unsatisfied" and "disappointed," if I cared enough to write out my frustrations with the book, Hay must have done something right, if only draw me in with the promise of her story and style. If you are a person who likes books about books, then you should at least enjoy part of this novel... though I hope that Sheridan Hay's next endeavor does not leave me with the impression that an uncomfortable sexual encounter can be illustrative of my encounter with her book as a whole.