Monday, February 28, 2011

Week 8: Letters from Yellowstone, by Diane Smith

Last year, Jamie and I visited Yellowstone National Park in the early fall, and it’s difficult to convey just exactly how much we loved it. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my entire life. When I returned, my boss let me borrow this book, which I just picked up recently and completed. It is set in Yellowstone at the end of the 1800s, and the story is told exclusively through the exchange of detailed letters sent from the characters in the park. By reading the accounts that they have penned for their friends and family members, the total picture of the tale emerges. The protagonist is a young botanist from Cornell named A.E. Bartram, who joins a scientific expedition at Yellowstone. The leader of the expedition, H.G. Merriam, is pleased to welcome this new member. But upon meeting Bartram, he is surprised to learn that she is a woman (Alexandria, or Alex for short). Despite initial reservations about including a woman into an all-male team, Merriam accepts Alex after she insists that she be allowed to stay. Alex soon proves herself based on her scrupulous and dedicated work efforts. As she immerses herself more deeply into the wilderness, she has an epiphany or sorts, and realizes that she has found her calling. Her wonder and marvel at the natural world surrounding her accurately captures the feelings that I think most visitors to the park actually experience. Through Alex, we receive a beautiful and detailed description of the park’s landscape, plant life, and animals. Secondary to that are the stories of the trials and tribulations of her campmates. As the story progresses, the reader observes how the relationships within the camp deepen, and how Alex must defend her new way of life to the people that she has left behind in New York. The book leaves the reader in a peaceful, inspired state. A delightful read, especially for anyone who has travelled to Yellowstone.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Week 7: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami

This is the second Murakami book that I have read, and the second of his books that I have fallen in love with. I can’t exactly pin down what it is about Murakami that I adore so fervently. His writing style is not particularly artful or impressive, and is plagued by clumsy translation into English (shorts are called “short pants”, for example). But in spite of that, I am completely transfixed by his stories. He is a great storyteller and I found myself unable to stop reading at times. On one evening I read over 250 pages in what seemed like the blink of an eye. It takes more than a great story for a book to be so compelling. I think what really makes Murakami’s work special is the ability to perfectly conjure up a dream state. This book’s story is woven with a thick fiber of dreams. Sometimes, the dreams are more than that, and fall under the category of an alternate reality, one that is indiscernible at first but quickly reveals itself to be a different place altogether than our realm. Murakami’s ability to craft these environments is masterful. He taps into the collective experience of dreaming so deftly that the reader perceives the subtly skewed fa├žade and this creates a sort of dream empathy. The plot of this book revolves around Toru Okada, a young man who has lost his job, his cat, and subsequently, his wife, who leaves him. As Toru searches for his wife to get her back, things get weirder and weirder. Simultaneously, he struggles to learn how to live with his new, unwanted reality. In many respects, this book is about loss – how loss shapes a person and creates a new destiny for the people that it touches. There are many unanswered questions in this story, which I feel makes it that much more moving. I cried at times while reading it, and I felt a deep affection for Toru. It’s also funny and suspenseful, and filled with unusual characters that confuse and delight the reader. Not to mention, it made me want to go to Japan really, really bad. I loved this book, and I'm so happy that I picked it up.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Week 6: Words, by Jean-Paul Sartre

The intense book cover is a preview of the tone of the story inside. This autobiographical work focuses on Sartre’s early childhood. To be commended is the level of detail Sartre achieves when revisiting his thoughts and feelings at that age. The reader almost feels as if the book was in fact written by a child at certain times. Sartre’s relationship with his family is interesting in the sense that he never seems to love them fully and completely. It’s as if his over-analysis of every single aspect of his life hinders his ability to truly bond with them. The entire book is saturated with deep self-reflection. Sometimes this can be enthralling – especially, I found, when he doubts and criticizes himself in the same way that I think most people do from time to time. In other times, it’s annoying because it is so self-indulgent. But I suppose that calling Sartre self-indulgent would be akin to calling Britney Spears too mainstream. It is what it is. Sartre as a boy simply wants to be loved and wants to be the center of attention at all times. I guess that isn’t any different than what many children want, but reading an entire book of this spurred a lot of eye-rolling.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Week 5: Orlando, by Virginia Woolf

The first time I had heard of this story was a few years ago when Jamie and I were in Barcelona at the Museum of Contemporary Art. We were walking through the galleries when we noticed a small room looping a short film that caught our attention. We sat down and watched the entire thing. It was German and totally bizarre, and a glance at the label on the way out provided the best surprise: it was called "Freak Orlando"! Freak Orlando!? That's my name! Once we got back to the States, we looked up the art film online and ordered a copy so that we could watch it again. At that time, I was just discovering that this movie (as well as an Academy Award-nominated film widely released in the 1990s) was based on this book by Virginia Woolf. I added it to my perpetual "to-read" list and finally picked it up last week. The story revolves around the life of Orlando, a young nobleman who transforms into a woman and leaps through three centuries. It reads like a fairy tale, thanks to the fantasy elements of the book and Woolf's incredibly beautiful, lyrical prose. The entire work features an undercurrent of whimsy and at times is very humorous. The main thrust of the book, however, is an analysis of gender roles that is moving and relevant even today. Orlando's journey from man to woman brings with it a realization of the expectations and societal responsibilities that each sex brings with it, and subsequently, the relative unimportance of those predetermined roles. It's totally engrossing, its characters are extremely likable, and it's got an important message - it's a terrific book. And I will conclude with this: after Orlando tells her future husband her name, Woolf writes, "He had guessed it. For if you see a ship in full sail coming with the sun on it proudly sweeping across the Mediterranean from the South Seas, one says at once, "Orlando", he explained." Although I am not sure exactly what that means, I can support that.