Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Other Summer Reads

The summer is almost over and, despite my best intentions, I have not kept up with this reading blog. Doesn't mean I didn't read. I just didn't write about what I read. So, in short, here are a few of the books I read this summer, with a few choice words...

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro is a collection of five short stories, all connected by the theme of music. I enjoyed this book quite a bit, but then, I like everything Ishiguro writes. He is a clever writer and makes me think. My only complaint: as a musician, I'm not so sure Ishiguro himself knows anything about playing music. He sounds like an avid listener who imagines himself playing an instrument.

The Selected Works of TS Spivet by Reif Larsen. I didn't know anything about this book when I picked it up. It reminded me of some of the books by one of my favorite authors, Eric Kraft (Herb 'n' Lorna, Where Do You Stop?, and many others). Kraft's books are filled with nostalgic recreations of a fictitious 1950's Long Island community and sometimes have charts, drawings, and diagrams in the margins. Larsen's book, wider than most paperbacks, also had charts and drawings (maps, I came to realize) in the margins so I imagined the book to have the same kind of fanciful back and forth aspect with its sidenotes. The main character is a young boy who lives on the Continental Divide in Montana whose incredible mapmaking skills brings him an award from the Smithsonian. He sets out across the vast sea of the country by himself to collect the award in an action-packed improbable journey. I had such high hopes for the book but, in the end, it was rather a forced wannabe kind of book—the author wanted his main character to be engaging and amazing in an autistic savant kind of way, yet it all came off as unbelievable and manufactured. Not to say the book is totally without merit, but it felt like a big idea that sort of went pffft at the end. Unbeknownst to me when I bought it, the book was the subject of a huge bidding war in the UK where the first-time author received a gigantic advance and a huge amount of press. I'd never heard of it.

Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley. Excellent beach reading. I have loved Buckley's books and this was no exception. He makes me guffaw embarrassingly in public. The set-up: there's a vacancy on the Supreme Court. The over-zealous right wingers on the Senate Judiciary Committee have shot down the president's first two candidates. To get back at them, the president selects a beautiful, popular, down-home, tough as nails former real judge who has found success and stardom as a judge on a reality show. Great send-ups of Washington and the political process, with really funny caricatures of Scalia, Thomas, and others.

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Foer is a journalist who became fascinated with memory and the brain after attending the world memory championships. Using some of the techniques he describes and used himself, I quickly learned how to memorize lists of things very easily.  This was an interesting and fun book—a journalist's perspective on memory, memory competitions, and the brain. It's amazing to think how much he was able to improve his own memory—if only I could do the same thing in crosswords.

My favorite part of the book was at the end when, after months and months of practice, leading him to win the US memory competition and competing in the world championship, he had an incredible realization: "And yet a few nights after the world championship, I went out to dinner with a couple of friends, took the subway home, and only remembered as I was walking in the door to my parents' house that I'd driven a car to dinner. I hadn't just forgotten where I parked it. I'd forgotten I had it."

But I liked thinking and learning about the role of memory in education and the different types of memories. It's interesting to think about what makes memories "stick" and how you can teach yourself these tricks to improve what all of us older folks think of as the inevitable dying off of brain cells (where are my glasses?). I also enjoyed the part of the book where he describes the Egyptian god giving the king the gift of writing, a replacement for the tradition of telling stories, singing songs, and passing on the knowledge and lore of a society orally, yet the king refuses the gift, saying, "They will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminding."

From one who can't believe how much he forgets, it was a fascinating read.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Waiting for Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk

A man washes ashore in modern Spain with no papers, no money, and barely any clothing, claiming to be Columbus. He is sent to a nearby mental hospital where doctors and nurses (one nurse in particular, the lovely and sad Consuela) try to tease out his story. Who is he and why does he think he is the 500 year old explorer? How does he explain the anachronisms and contradictions in his story?

I was surprised how much I liked this novel. The narration flashes back and forth between the modern present-day world of the hospital and the story he tells Consuela. Columbus tells of his attempts to convince the Spanish authorities of the 15th century of his need for ships to find what there is across the western sea, of the many women and families in his life, and of Queen Isabella's lust for him. I found myself searching for answers and hidden meanings in his descriptions and in the "word-pictures" he creates. These "word-pictures" are lengthy descriptions of mental images stuck in his head, clues to who he is or was. The tale is meandering and beautiful, almost like reading Cervantes (something whic may have been intentional) with Columbus's many adventures, his repeating themes, and his many questioning companions. Like Don Quixote, Columbus's plan to sail across the ocean to who knows what is viewed as a ridiculous lark, even heresy; he is made fun of and faces insurmountable obstacles, yet he pushes on, as crazy as he is. That is the story he tells Consuela as he swims laps in a pool. Much to her surprise and embarrassment, she finds herself falling in love with her patient.

I found myself wondering about disorders like this and how people claim they are Jesus or (as in the novel) the Pope. What happens to a person that leads them or their minds to settle on one figure or another? Why Columbus or Elvis or Princess Diana? As a mental health professional, how do you break down that constructed self and find the person and their true story within? Is that how treatment of this kind of disorder works?

The only glaring weakness for me was the character of an Interpol missing persons investigator,  hot on the trail of Columbus. Emile's story was neither plausible or engaging. Perhaps the author should have trusted the character of Columbus himself—he was enough to engage us; we didn't need Emile to help us in our search.

But overall, this was a really enjoyable read.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Lauren Groff's The Monsters of Templeton

I just finished Lauren Groff's The Monsters of Templeton, a book selected for my other book group. Interestingly, it takes plan in a town modeled on Cooperstown and features a character modeled on James Fenimore Cooper, as well as characters from Cooper's novels. In some ways, this broad narrative of one family's history is very much linked with this American Experience the Swat Book Group has decided to take on.

Let me explain.

Archaeologist Wilhemina "Wille" Upton returns to her hometown of Templeton, NY, birthplace of the game of baseball and the hall of fame, pregnant, disgraced, and an emotional wreck. Her mother Vi, formerly a 60's hippie who reveled in Willie's birth as a "love child", is now a devout Christian, much to Willie's surprise. Vi still lives in the family homestead, Temple Manor, which is perched above Lake Glimmerglass. One the day of her arrival, Willie learns that the lake's supposedly-mythical monster—Glimmey, to the locals—has surfaced and died. Amid all the media hoopla and national attention, Willie desperately is trying to find her bearings. Vi sets her the goal of discovering the identity of her real father, plunging Willie into the town's strange and storied history. Multiple narrators fill the book, from the town's founder, Marmaduke Temple, to the Runnings Buds (Willie's self-proclaimed cheerleading squad and protectors, who spend every morning running around town), to assorted family crazies like Cinnamon Averell, Remarkable Prettybones, Noname, and Sagamore—even Glimmey her/himself at the end.

A vast, sprawling novel, The Monsters of Templeton is not without charm and intrigue. Mysteries abound—murder, arson, incest, rape, betrayal, ghosts, and more. But it's easy to find oneself lost in all the name and all the history of the town, like thrashing around in the depths of Lake Glimmerglass itself. I'm not sure what all the ghosts and even the monster signify; are they protectors, accompanying Willie and the town's inhabitants through the murky waters of their lives, or are they haunting images, responsive to people's baser instincts like lust, greed, and betrayal? It's hard to say. Ghosts pop up throughout the novel, leading characters to strange realizations and actions, guiding their hands and their eyes to see what is hidden in plain sight.

There are times when the novel is incredibly evocative—the chapters in the dark woods of the early days in Templeton remind me of the backwoods scenes in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom which we read this past spring. But the narration here is uneven and, at times, stretches credulity. Some of Groff's narrators sound alike, despite differences in age, gender, class, and race. And the story meanders along between generations and time so much that it's sometimes hard to get a foothold on where everything is heading. Of course, this ambivalence is also reflected in Willie's ambivalence toward everyone she meets in town, from old crushes, to the fallen cheerleaders and risen former fat boys of high school. She's not sure why she is there and if she likes the place, having tried so hard to leave it all behind for her glamorous life in academia.

But these are small quibbles to have with such a fun novel. I enjoyed the play between the real and the fictional, and between the really fictional (in Cooper's books) and the really real (Cooperstown the town). Groff is a talented writer and I'll be sure to look for her next book.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Fierce Radiance, Lauren Belfer

I wanted to like this book, I really did. The topic is fascinating. I spoke to her about it briefly when we were both on the alumni council at Swarthmore. But it just isn't very good. At one point, she has one of her characters, a former Stanford Economics professor turned spy, say, "It's nothing like you see in the movies." Someone should have told the author that, since every character, every bad cliche about science, war, espionage, capitalism, and on and on...every detail feels copped from old movies. And not just old movies, but bad old movies.

The time: just days after Pearl Harbor. The plot involves a talented, love-abandoned photographer for Life magazine, beautiful Claire Shipley, and her relationship with the swashbuckling, handsome Jamie Stanton, a researcher at the Rockefeller Institute. Stanton and his beautiful, talented (see a theme here?) sister Tia are working 24/7 on the promising and frustrating search for a reliable way to generate penicillin. The US entry into the war spurs production and the race is on, with the US government and the Big Bad capitalists (the drug companies and Claire's venture capitalist father, Edward Rutherford, all of 'em dead ringers for Lionel Barrymore or some other old Hollywood type) fighting for turf, literally (some molds, the cousins of penicillin, are found in soil samples).

It really is a good idea for a novel. And I actually don't want to spend too much time tearing it down. I'll just say that I wish there'd been more history, much more science, more believable characters, less romance, and fewer authorial flourishes, the danger of any historical novel, where the author flashes bits of their voluminous research at us, asking us to nod along in awe. Another danger: weaving too many actual people into the novel: Henry Luce, Claire Booth Luce, John D Rockefeller and on and on.

But I'm done. Enough said. On to the next book, hopefully one that is better written.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Emma Donoghue's Room

I just finished Emma Donoghue's Room last night. I would have finished it sooner but a stomach bug really floored me over the last couple of days. I didn't feel like reading, eating, or doing anything other than groaning. Groaning was good. I became a good groaner, a world-class groaner, while I was sick.

I guess the other reason I didn't finish until last night was because the book is so absorbing and so emotional. The story is of a mother and son, trapped for seven years in an 11x11 foot room by a crazy man. Five year old Jack was born in the room (son of the man who continually rapes his mother) and narrates the story. He has never been outside and has never spoken to anyone else. His mother (Ma) has told him that what they see on TV (supplied by their captor), is all fantasy, other worlds, not real. The only reality for Jack is what is in this room. Ma fills their days with routines, like Gym, Reading, and all sorts of games, despite having only five books (which they read again and again) and very few other ways of occupying themselves. Jack sleeps in the wardrobe, but peeks out to see their captor when he arrives in the dark.

The novel could have devolved into horror or exploitation but it doesn't. Donoghue makes a point of satirizing our culture's obsession with fame, with investigation, with the next horrible story, with the need to find heroes and inspiration. She could have easily written Ma's character as a perfect heroine, able to raise her boy and keep him safe in ridiculously perverse, difficult circumstances. Instead, Ma unravels once she is free of their captor. Her desires for people, for normalcy, for the way things were conflict with her need for isolation and a return to the safety of rules and schedules with Jack.

And, as Jack confronts the real world, we see him facing things we don't even think about, e.g. that oncoming cars in the other lane aren't going to hit you, that rain falling from the sky won't hurt you. What could have been an annoying device (having a 5 year old narrator for the duration of the book) is not. It never feels contrived but always fresh and new. His observations and language are always a 5 year old's (that waiting for something always takes hundreds of hours) and never feel forced. Our understanding of what is going on is seen through Jack. The only variation of his voice comes a result of a game he and Ma call Parrot, where Jack is supposed to spit back the exact language he hears on TV, from nature shows, news reports, and movies. Later, you realize he is playing Parrot when he relays the details of overheard adult conversations—a neat narrative trick which may be the least believable part of the book.

So, in the end, an engaging read, one that made me think of nature vs. nurture debates and the relationship between parents and children (what do kids need beyond their basic human needs?). Have you read this book? Care to comment below?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Doctorow's Homer and Langley

I finished Doctorow's Homer and Langley last night. I wasn't intending to read a novel which would fit into our American Experience theme; it just happened. Since I've read almost everything Doctorow has written, I'd had this on my bedside table for a while. I guess I've grown increasingly frustrated with good old E.L. over the years and I wasn't particularly eager to start the book.

But then again, there is something strange and alluring about the real-life story the book is based on. The title refers to a pair of wealthy hoarders who lived in an expensive 5th Avenue brownstone. The brothers (one was blind) were hounded by the press and rock-throwing kids, and eventually died in their boarded-up mansion in 1947. More here at wikipedia.

Doctorow took the bare bones of this story and expanded on it, changing the birth order of the brothers and lengthening their lives to the 1970's. Certain elements of the real brothers' lives stayed the same (e.g., that Langley had attempted to use a Model T which he'd installed in the dining room to electrify the house once the power and gas had been shut off), but others Doctorow tinkered with to suit his own purposes. Homer, blind from adolescence on, narrates the story and he takes us through all of the changes and major events in US history in the 20th century, as seen by this musical (he plays his beloved Aeolian piano throughout the entire book, almost as a soundtrack to the action), lonely shut-in. Homer's highly dependent on Langley, for food, direction, and guidance (his older brother, though sighted, was injured in a mustard gas attack as a soldier in WWI). You get the feeling that Homer tolerates his brother's crazy hoarding and his attempts at creating an uber-newspaper, one that would show the incessant repeating patterns of history and society. They were both nuts.

Doctorow can be a wonderful writer but parts of the book were just sloppy. Since it is the first person narration of a blind man supposedly using a braille typewriter, how much can we attribute the mistakes in grammar and punctuation to that and how much can we attribute to Doctorow's editors' unwillingness to change anything of the master's? It doesn't matter. There were some scenes of beauty and poignance, like an early scene where Homer's 16 year old piano student describes what is happening on the screen to him so he can play along on the piano with the film (we're supposed to believe that he needed the job at a movie house). Or the clannish gathering of hippies inside their brownstone and the last supper they prepare for the brothers.

But those scenes of brilliance are few and far between as the reader seesaws between Langley's cynical, seen-it-all view of the world and Homer's blind tolerance. The book is not a masterpiece and is certainly redolent of other Doctorows, particularly Billy Bathgate, in which a gangster takes centerstage. This time, the gangster intuitively trusts the brothers, offering them prostitutes who arrive at midnight bearing champagne. The gangster reappears years later during the organized crime hearings of the late 50's and yet again one more time. essence, not a brilliant book, but certainly a Doctorow.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Summer Reading Time!


Thought I'd make a blog to empty out some of the contents of my brain. What are you planning to read this summer (other than Huck Finn, of course)? My first couple of entries are in the list below. Click on the Comments section below, then Post a Comment to tell me what you're reading and I'll add it to the list. If you don't see that option in the upper right, then you are not signed in. If you don't want to sign in or create a new account, just email me what you're reading and any comments you might have and I will post for you.