Sunday, August 29, 2010

My apologies to The Girl*

I don’t know how to say this, exactly. I don’t mean to be contrary, and I’m not looking to get all “mavericky” or anything. But I have to admit it, because I swore that if I was going to write a book blog I was going to be completely honest about my opinions. So here goes.

I didn’t enjoy The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

There, I’ve said it.

It's not you, Girl. It's me. I just don't find carnage enjoyable.

To be exact, I didn’t enjoy two out of the three main storylines that comprise Stieg Larsson’s preternaturally popular novel. Actually, I thought the Wennerström story, the industrial corruption storyline that got our hero Mikael Blomkvist into so much trouble in the first place, was very well conceived and executed. If the book had focused on that line, it might have been one of my favorite books of the summer -- clever and confusing, in a very good way.

But the book didn't focus on that storyline. Instead, it wandered into some places I just don't really want to think about. I found the Vanger family storyline unnecessarily creepy and violent. And the storyline involving Lisbeth Salander’s evil guardian was absolutely disgusting.

(Larsson paints a very ugly picture of Swedish society. I’ve been to Sweden, and met such lovely people there. But after I finished this novel I was wondering if I hadn’t been lucky to escape Stockholm with my life.)

The plot moves along quickly, and the main characters are so compelling that you want to know what happens next. But from a storytelling standpoint, I found Larsson’s use of italics completely distracting. It’s as though he didn’t trust the reader:
“I’m serious Lisbeth. About splitting the money.”
“I’m serious too. I only want to borrow it, and I need it tomorrow.”
She didn’t even ask how much her share would be. (Kindle p. 9726)
I know she didn’t ask how much her share would be, because I was just party to the entire conversation. What ever happened to “show, don’t tell?” Maybe it's a translation issue, but it struck me as odd.

Obviously, the world hasn’t gone nuts over this novel for nothing though, and there are a lot of things to like here. One of them is Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist convicted of libel by a system that favors industry. God knows journalism could use a champion right about now, and Blomkvist might fit the bill. Larsson makes him a kind of Sam Spade without a gun. He has a shady personal life, but you get the idea that he’ll do the right thing in the end.

Master hacker Lisbeth Salander is the most unique character in the book. And I imagine she is responsible in large part for the book's worldwide appeal --there just isn't another character like her. She goes from victim to avenging angel to super spy in the course of the novel. I think the best part of the subsequent books would be watching that character grow. But considering what Larsson put her through in this book, I'm not sure I want to know what happens next.

As a mystery, this was a page turner, and if you don't mind the gore, I imagine this would be a really good read. But I don't think my stomach can handle another installment.

Sorry, Girl.

*I've been using the "Girl" reference for the series since I read it on "How Mysterious," so thanks, Karen.

Micro-history Monday: The Professor and the Madman

With The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester presents a strange, personal and oddly upbeat history of the relationship between two men that ought never to have met. The first is Professor James Murray, the Scottish-born lexicographer behind what is now known as the Oxford English Dictionary. The second is Dr. W.C. Minor, a brilliant but insane American surgeon who murdered a London man in cold blood in the years after the American Civil War. Minor was consigned to the Broadmoor asylum after he was found not guilty of the crime because of insanity, and ultimately became one of the most significant contributors to the OED’s volunteer efforts. It was only after the first edition of the OED was published, when Murray traveled to Minor’s address to thank him personally for his tireless work, that Murray found out the doctor’s true identity and situation.

The story was bizarre enough to be fodder for the tabloid press on both sides of the Atlantic more than once during the early part of the 20th century, so it’s not surprising that Winchester resurrected the story again at the end of that century for further investigation. But I would argue that the tale of the two men merely provides a “hook” for the book that Winchester actually wanted to write (but which publishers no doubt told him wouldn’t sell), a history of English dictionaries, including his obviously beloved OED. And this is one of my main problems with the book. Winchester’s voice is so effusive in its praise of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, and then the OED, he waxes so poetic on their developments and uses, that he loses the battle for objectivity. My expectation of historians is when they re-approach a subject they will take many perspectives into account. But Winchester sweeps aside any criticisms of the OED – and there are many – in favor of devoted fandom:

There is some occasional carping that the work reflects an elitist, male, British, Victorian tone. Yet even in the admission that, like so many achievements of the era, it did reflect a set of attitudes not wholly harmonic with those prevalent at the end of the twentieth century, none seem to suggest that any other dictionary has ever come close, or will ever come close, to the achievement that it offers.(p. 221)

Winchester constructs the English language as the last vestige of the British Empire. But if it is, it’s worth remembering that it no longer belongs to the Victorian era. For me, the quaint spellings and definitions that make up the OED are an interesting historical artifact, but they give little sense of the dynamism of English in the internet age – for that, you’re better off with Urban Dictionary. So while I understand the importance of the original achievement, I am not as convinced as Winchester that the lexicographical achievement will stand alone in history -- I have more faith in English-speaking humanity than that. And humanity in general.

My second major problem with the book was the “pop psychology” angle on which some of the book's chapters depended. There is endless speculation about the causes of Dr. Minor’s madness (schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and separation anxiety are all proffered as possible explanations), as well as a prurient suggestion that some of the doctor’s later problems might have been caused by an unnatural attraction to the wife of the man Minor murdered – even though there is absolutely no shred of evidence that such an attraction existed. “Why go there?” I kept wondering.

This is a good book, however. The writing style was too flowery for my taste, but the story is told in a compelling way, moving between the two main characters - three if you count the OED - at a lively pace. Winchester did do primary research, and uncovered some letters that expand and enhance the story over previous tabloid versions. The word sleuths out there will definitely find it a treat. Recommended to those who can't start the week without finishing the NYT crossword puzzle, word historians, and anyone else who truly loves language.

That finishes the "What's in a Name 3" challenge - finally. I'm looking forward to next year's categories!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Summer reading wrap-up, and some plans for autumn

The calendar says I can wear white shoes for another week or so, but back-to-school means "autumn" to me, and with a couple of my reading challenges winding down, it's time to evaluate how I did on my reading goals this summer. Short answer: Not too bad at all.

My first goal was to enjoy reading for pleasure again. That may seem a bit looney, but after six years on the tenure track, I had gotten into the very sad habit of thinking of reading as a chore. And let's face it, it can be if you only associate it with work, work, work. Or even worse, when you associate it with guilt because you ought to be working. (You'd think as a stupendously lapsed Catholic I could discard the guilt, but it appears to be the one thing that stuck.) This summer I enacted what I already knew -- I am better at working when I actually make time to do little things for myself, like read or take a walk, or play a game of Scrabble with my daughter. My TBR pile is a source of potential pleasure, not anxiety. Even now that the semester has started, I'm still making time for reading. The joy is back. Goal one accomplished.

My second goal was to expand my reading horizons. I took two positive steps toward that goal. First, I joined a couple of different reading challenges: fitting books into the challenges introduced me to reviews of books across a wide range of genres, and by a variety of authors that were completely new to me. I've benefitted from the regional challenges in particular: the
Japanese Literature Challenge 4 and the Scandinavian Reading Challenge were responsible for my two favorite books of the summer, Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen and Tove Jansson's The Summer Book. (Okay, I also read a couple of lousy books, but the good books more than made up for them.)

As my second step toward widening my horizons, I started participating in discussions about books. I found some book blogs I really like to read. Checking my Blogger Dashboard with a cup of coffee has become part of my day -- a part I really enjoy. I owe a great portion of my current TBR pile to the insights provided in the thoughtful reviews of many book bloggers, and I'm really thankful for that. (I'm also thankful that I have access to one of the world's largest university library systems, but that's another blogpost altogether.) So I'd describe the state of my second goal as "progressing well." You can always be more "expansive," right?

So what's up next? After all, this is a blog about what I'm doing when I ought to be grading. With the papers about to roll in, I need to shore up my procrastination skills. Not to worry: I am happy to report my grading avoidance strategies for the fall will be many and varied!

  • Number 1: Complete the challenges I've started, and find some interesting new ones. I've already started on this goal. I have three Scandinavian titles left to blog about, one of which I've already read. I'll probably add two more to the Japanese Literature Challenge as well (I'm Yoshimoto-obsessed, so thanks, Meredith). I've also joined the Middle East Reading Challenge over at Helen's Book Blog. For that challenge, I'm hoping to read at least 4 books from across the region: one from Israel, one from Lebanon, one from Egypt and one from Iran. If anyone has any suggestions for titles, I would love to hear them.

  • Number 2: Participate in a read-along. I've read posts about read-alongs, but haven't done one yet. Since I haven't found a book club in State College, I feel like I might really enjoy this. One thing I know for certain about myself is deadlines keep me honest. Once I attach a date to something, I can usually do it -- not early, but at least on time. Again, any suggestions are appreciated.

  • Number 3: Be a better blogger. I'm pretty new at this, but I already realize my site could be better. I'm going to work on designing some new pages and some indexing. I also plan to update more often. I only have a few, highly valued followers, and they deserve something new to look at more often than I've been providing it. I'm thinking four posts a week. Might be too much, but at least it's a goal!
We'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Personal Matter: A man comes to grips with a shattered dream

My youngest brother is mentally retarded. He does not have Down’s syndrome, so it took a while for my parents to realize that he wasn’t reaching milestones at the same rate that their other two children had. But by the time he was 2 or 3 it was evident that he was not going to have the same kind of life as the rest of us. Beginning when I was about 6, I can remember my parents’ frustration with the doctors, their anger with the school system when my brother’s needs couldn’t be met, but mostly their deep sadness for the son they loved so much. They mourned for the life they had wished for him that he was never going to have.

The only reason for sharing this story is to confront the prism through which I read Kenzaburo Oe’s forthright and painful A Personal Matter, a semi-autobiographical novel about Bird, a young, selfish man who must come to terms with the birth of an imperfect child – one who doctors tell him is likely to be a “vegetable” if he survives at all.

At the time of his son’s birth, Bird’s marriage is in shambles. He has survived a post-marital bender that diminished his prospects at graduate school, and now works as a teacher in a “cram school,” helping students prepare for their English exams. But Bird’s dream is to travel to Africa – he worries that having a child will tie him to Japan forever. Of course, once he finds out his son is both disfigured and likely to be profoundly retarded, Bird realizes he must finally decide what kind of life he wants to live.

Bird is a mostly unlikeable character. He is uncommitted to his relationship with his wife, even with a baby on the way. And in dealing with his son’s situation, he focuses almost completely on the impact the boy’s life or death will have on himself, not on the others around him. Bird is thoroughly self-absorbed.
The doctor, without a direct reply to Bird’s question, lapsed into silence. Bird watched his face, waiting for him to speak again. And suddenly he felt himself being seized by a disgraceful desire. It had quickened in the darkness of his mind like a clot of black slugs when he learned at the reception window that his baby was still alive, and gradually had made clear to him its meaning as it propagated with horrid vigor. Bird again dredged the question up to the surface of his conscious mind: how can we spend the rest of our lives, my wife and I, with a monster baby riding on our backs? Somehow I must get away from the monster baby. (p. 74-75)

But while Bird seems cold, his predicament is very real. This I know from watching my parents and their friends. Caring for a child with special needs is a difficult job, a strain on even the best marriage. Divorce rates for parents of children with special needs are higher than those in the general population. It takes a truly committed couple to get through the ordeal intact. And Bird knew he had already proved a disappointment to his wife – how could they withstand the difficulties of raising this child. Especially in Japan in the early sixties, a society in which non-conformity was problematic, and shame was a very real part of parenting a special-needs child?

The author does not shrink from facing this and a number of other difficult questions throughout the novel. Oe’s writing is amazingly honest and eloquent, even when forcing us to confront the most horrible urge on earth: to abandon your own child. The book was also surprisingly explicit at points, and even a bit uncomfortable to read. You won’t be fond of Bird by the end of the book, but you will understand him, and that is the author’s greatest accomplishment. Having lived in a family that faced similar issues, I sometimes felt sympathy for Bird, which came as a surprise to me, considering how fierce a defender I have always been of my youngest brother. The book is definitely recommended, but only when you’re in the mood for a dark, somewhat heavy read – that’s when it will best suit your mood.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Persepolis: Breaking out of a rut with graphic art

My good friend Jess at Desperado Penguin had a great idea for a reading adventure that became The No Ruts Reading Challenge. Basically, the idea was to read a small number of books in genres and by authors you have never encountered before – or even have existing prejudices against. I had already dedicated this summer to expanding my reading horizons, so I decided to try and fit some of the books from other challenges into No Ruts.

Reaching the Bronze Level of No Ruts proved easy. I read my first-ever Banana Yoshimoto title for Dolce Belleza’s wonderful 4th Japanese Literature Challenge, and listened to my first audio book with Ellie. Silver Level – reading something despite some kind of bad review – seemed wide open. I’m a member of Goodreads, and believe me, for every person that loves a book, there’s someone else who hates it. But in the spirit of the challenge, I was looking for something different from anything I had tried before. When my 16-year-old daughter gave a lukewarm review to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, I knew I had Silver nailed: I had never read a graphic novel.

The Complete Persepolis is a fascinating memoir of the Iranian Revolution – or more correctly, revolutions, since the first one ousted the Shah, and a second brought the Islamic government to power. Marjane is the only daughter of the Satrapi family, a wealthy, well-connected and liberal clan that supports the first revolution. But as Iran moves toward fundamentalism, the family and their close friends feel like unwelcome guests in their own home. Finally, Marjane’s independent, secular attitudes become such a problem for the family – and pose such a danger to herself – that she is shipped off to boarding school in Austria. She eventually returns to Tehran and attends art school, but ultimately she must decide if she can live within the narrow confines of fundamentalist Iranian society.

The book is at turns funny, smart and annoying. The graphic novel format makes great sense here, because Satrapi is an illustrator, and she is more comfortable “speaking” in pictures than in words. In fact, the story is so compelling that I often forgot I was reading a graphic novel. Satrapi does not spare herself from the artist’s critical eye: she allows the reader to experience some difficult and unflattering episodes, a courageous and dangerous path for a memoirist who wants to remain “likeable.” Still, Marjane comes off more strident than heroic at some points. In others, she seems more annoyed that the Islamic Revolution ruined the party for Iran’s elite than concerned about the societal outcomes of regime change. But perhaps that's just the way a young woman would feel about a revolution – I certainly haven’t lived through what Satrapi did.

This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in a social history of the Iranian Revolution, or for anyone trying to dip their toes into the graphic novel genre. Another rut undone. Another reward.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Micro-history Monday: There’s nothing “vanilla” about the ice cream orchid

I like reading about food almost as much as I like cooking food. Food micro-histories aren’t usually page turners, but I love the idea of someone learning everything there is to know about an ingredient or a cuisine –anything, really – and then sharing the information with me. That’s what happens when a micro-history is written well, anyway. And Tim Ecott’s Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid is actually written well.

Ecott traces vanilla’s story from the jungles of the Yucatan to the tiny islands of Reunion and Tahiti –excellent work, if you can get it. Along the way, he focuses on many aspects of the plant’s development and usage, including social justice issues, economics and agriculture. The historiography is well done, shifting seamlessly from Mexico and Central America to England to Madagascar to the Marquesas. It’s clear that Ecott has done a great deal of legwork.

A particularly interesting part of the book revolves around Edmond, the slave who discovered the trick to fertilizing orchid plants with a trick known as le geste d’Edmond. Figuring out the trick was crucial, as the insects that naturally fertilize the vanilla orchids in Mexico and Central America are not found on the Indian Ocean islands from which today’s Bourbon vanilla is largely exported. Ecott uses this section of the book to explore the social history of the French colonial islands, and the lingering racism faced by the Afro-French to this day:
In Tahiti, another former French possession, I met a vanilla grower who laughed when I told him what I knew of the story of Edmond. “Rubbish!” he said with a scowl. “In fact, the boy was just a slave – and it is well known that he hated his owner. If he did fertilize the vanilla flower – it was an accident, not any kind of discovery!”

This despite the fact the slave’s owner documented the discovery at the time, and freely shared the information with other plantation owners. The social history of the islands, as well as the current social aspects of the farmer/curer/importer relationships, are what set this book apart from other micro-histories which shy away from the politics of their subject.

I find it particularly satisfying when a micro-history leaves me with information I would never have had or that I can use in my daily life. Here’s one (among many) to whip out at cocktail parties from Ecott: those little black grains in your “Vanilla Bean” ice cream have NO flavor. That’s right, NONE. According to Ecott, the flavor in your commercially made ice cream comes entirely from extracts, not the beans extracted from the pods as you would do in home ice cream making. What you think are beans are actually the flavorless “dust” left from the extraction process. So why include them? It’s a heuristic, indicating “home-made” and “flavorful,” since in the rest of our life that’s exactly what the pods signify.

I definitely recommend this book to foodies, micro-history lovers and travel readers. At the very least, it will provide some chit-chat at the next ice cream social!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Audio books save the trip: Percy and the Olympians and Ellie

Faced with a ten-hour car ride to Wisconsin, and a pre-teen who was already missing her older sister (who was flying in later) and her parents (who were leaving her in Madison with her grandparents to attend a conference), I racked my brain for a way to make the trip more enjoyable. Ellie was in the middle of reading Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, and loving it. (This is great news, as Ellie has up-to-now been the kind of kid who avoided certain titles because they looked “too long.”) So I figured we could get the audio books of both The Lightning Thief and the second book in the series, The Sea of Monsters, and make the trip a lot more fun for all of us.

For those who don’t know, Riordan’s Percy and the Olympians series chronicles the exciting and dangerous life of Perseus Jackson, a modern-day son of Poseidon with an uncanny ability to attract monsters – and mayhem – as he battles to save the world from the forces of the evil Titan Kronos. His friends include a host of other demi-gods and mythical creatures, most importantly Annabeth (a gray-eyed daughter of Athena) and Grover (the satyr who identified Percy as a demi-god, or half-blood, in the first place).

Generally, I am not a reader of Young Adult titles*, at least on my own. But I have enjoyed reading many of them with my daughters over the years, and I was excited when Ellie decided to read this series – I remember going through a phase where I couldn’t get enough Greek and Roman mythology myself. I thought it might be just the thing to push her into the next level of reading achievement. Turns out I was right.

Let me say that there is nothing groundbreaking in either of the titles. The same formula – take a seemingly regular kid and surround him/her with a collection of unusual friends in the combat of some great evil – worked in other great series, like The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and Harry Potter. The particular fun of Riordan’s books, however, is in the juxtaposition of archetypical Greek characters with thoroughly modern settings. Mount Olympus is found at the top of the Empire State Building. The Gray Sisters share their eye to navigate a supernatural taxi service. The entrance to Hades is – of course – in Los Angeles, with Charon reimagined as the snarky receptionist of D.O.A. Records. Hilarious! Actually, I'd say this series is a perfect choice for multi-generational listening, because there are a lot of jokes that are clearly meant for the parents.

Audio books include another factor – the reader. Both The Lightning Thief and The Sea of Monsters were read by Jesse Bernstein. His mild New York accent worked well for Manhattan-based Percy, but my daughter thought he sounded a bit too old to read Percy’s first-person narrative. Also, some of the accents he employed to differentiate the characters were simply awful, and not consistent within characters when they reappeared. But Bernstein does have a gentle voice, and it didn’t grate on me even after a long car ride, so I think his interpretation was mostly successful.

So listening to the audio books made the long car trips lots of fun. I always thought of audio books as kind of a “cheat,” but having listened to one, I now think of them as a whole different form of entertainment. Even better, Ellie’s next trip to the library netted D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, and she hasn’t had her nose out of it since. She knows a Satyr from a Centaur, and a Nereid from a Dryad. She has even chosen her costume for Halloween: Artemis. Her rationale: she’s the only goddess who doesn’t want to smooch boys all the time! I’m glad that even though her reading tastes are maturing, she isn’t growing up too fast – she is my baby after all.

*Although this summer has been an exception, I admit, with Looking for Alaska and the Percy Jacksons

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Asleep: Contemplating the color of slumber

Banana Yoshimoto paints pictures with words: pictures of interactions and pictures of emotions. I love her sparse yet evocative writing style. So when the University Library told me Asleep was available for pick-up, it went directly to the top of my TBR pile.

Asleep is the second collection of short stories by Yoshimoto I have read. As in Kitchen, Yoshimoto employs a young, female narrator in all the stories. And although the narrators’ lives and circumstances are very different, Yoshimoto binds the stories together through her exploration of the different aspect of sleep: healing, renewal, withdrawal and escape.

My favorite story in the collection, Night and Night’s Travelers focuses on the aftermath of the death of a young man, Yoshihiro, and the way the women who loved him deal with the loss. Yoshihiro’s lover, Mari, sleeps through most of the first year after his death, almost as though she is waiting for her life to begin again one morning. His sister Shibami, who narrates the story, remembers him as someone both comforting and mysterious.
”I kind of wonder if that wasn’t The Future, as my childish heart saw it. Back then my brother was something that definitely wouldn’t die, he was both night and something that traveled through night – something like that.”

Night isn’t scary in these stories. It’s a time for thought, and for individual reflection. For Yoshimoto, night provides introspection, allowing us to recharge ourselves for the externally-oriented day.

This collection is simply a pleasure to read. All of the stories have a dreamy, magical quality. Weather imagery suffuses the stories. Rain provides white noise; snow covers and quiets the houses like a blanket. The colors of night – blue, purple, black, silver – calm and cool the senses. I’d suggest curling up with a cup of tea – or a glass of port – and reading before bed time. It’s the kind of reading that soothes the soul.