Friday, September 2, 2011

Week 32: Dead Until Dark, by Charlaine Harris

I borrowed this book from a friend, not really knowing much about the television series, True Blood, that it spawned. I knew that it had to do with vampires, and because of that, I was a tiny bit apprehensive about reading this. But let me tell you, it did not take long for me to get over it, because I really enjoyed this book! It such a fun read. The gloriously-named main character, Sookie Stackhouse, is a young woman living in Northern Louisiana. She lives with her elderly grandmother and makes a living waiting tables at a local diner. The story takes place in a time in which vampires are acknowledged members of society. Nowadays, they feed on synthetic blood, as opposed to killing people, but they still struggle against the prejudices and disdain of humans (this could be an allegory for a few different sociological groups facing similar struggles in our society today). Sookie meets a vampire named Bill, and she soon saves his life when she finds him in the hands of malicious people who are trying to drain his blood. (Vampire blood is quite rejuvenating for humans, and therefore, in high demand on the black market.) Once Sookie saves him, Bill is indebted to her, and the two become friends. Sookie learns that vampires are not that different from humans, although through Bill, she does meet some other shady vampires. Their relationship blossoms and they begin a romantic affair, but it seems that simultaneously, a number of murders are breaking out in their small town. Sookie must defend Bill from the masses as the tries to get to the bottom of the crimes that are turning their lives upside down. Sookie is a great character. She’s funny, and she’s independent and tough, but also kindhearted. The whole novel is steeped in a Southern flavor that is a delight to read. The dialogue is peppered with regional slang. It’s entertaining to read how Sookie and Bill’s relationship progresses just like a “normal” relationship between a man and a woman. The author gets it and is able to convey it onto to the page. In other words, it’s not just a vampire story – it has engaging characters that will make you smile and want to keep reading.

Week 31: The Hakawati, by Rabih Alameddine

I picked up The Hakawati on a whim because it had gotten a lot of great reviews, but primarily, I wanted to read it because it is about a Lebanese family, and I am part Lebanese. As soon as I started reading it, I knew I loved it, and by the time I finished it, it had become my favorite book. Of all time. It’s that good! I suppose that some might find the “frame tale” structure too convoluted or too meandering, but I can’t imagine not being utterly consumed by this book. Hakawati means “storyteller” in Arabic, and the entire tale is a tribute to the art of storytelling. It sets the tone immediately with its opening lines: “Listen. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story.” The central story revolves around Osama al-Kharrat, a young Lebanese man who lives in Los Angeles, but has traveled back to Beirut to be at his dying father’s bedside. There, he reunites with his large family as they all keep vigil and help support each other. The family immediately charms the reader, as we meet various characters, from Osama’s father himself, to Osama’s sister and cousins and cantankerous aunts. Each family member is captured perfectly, has their own sparkling personality and their own story. On top of this, more stories are interwoven. We follow the story of Fatima, a slave girl who seduces a demon. We are introduced to Baybars, a boy who grew up to become a prince and war hero. We learn the history behind Osama’s parents’ origins and the diverse ethnic background that comprised his ancestry. It’s stories on top of stories on top of stories, but through it all, the common thread is the bond that brings families together. Did you ever have nights with your own family in which you stayed up late, recounting funny stories from your childhood? This book is like that. It employs a heavy dose of magic, as many of the stories would qualify as fables. The reader will come across imps and trolls, magic spells, and carpet rides. It’s a fairy tale in that it will transport you into a different world. However, it is tethered to the present, as other stories recount the wars that have devastated Lebanon, or Osama’s journey to the States to look at UCLA. It’s all a fantastic tapestry. It will make you ache for the days when people told stories and kept a verbal tradition, as opposed to being steeped in our culture of digital nonsense. There are so many characters who will make you laugh and make you cry.  There are so many bewitching elements of Middle Eastern culture, so many beautiful, poetic sentences, so many strong female characters, so much romance and honor. It’s timeless and it was a joy to read.

Week 30: Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli

This book was my book club’s most recent selection. I was really looking forward to it, because it’s our club’s first graphic novel choice. We have a pretty relaxed book club, and I’m proud to say that we’ve read a lot of different types of books, from autobiographies to historical accounts to short stories. I’m not very well-read when it comes to graphic novels, but I enjoy them, and my intrigue peaked when I’d heard that this one had taken ten years to finish. Asterios Polyp is the main character of this story. He’s an architecture professor abruptly uproots his life when his apartment burns down. He gets on a Greyound bus and sets out for a small town called Apogee, where he meets a friendly car mechanic named Stiff. Stiff is kind enough to let Asterios stay with him and his wife and young son. As the story unfolds, we learn more about Asterios and his past. Through flashbacks of sorts, the reader is introduced to Asterios’ ex-wife, Hana, and we see the progression of their relationship. It is also revealed that Asterios had a twin brother who died at birth. Although Asterios is in a very different environment in this small town, his character is illuminated by these peeks into his earlier life. He isn’t all that likable – watching the decline of his marriage makes that clear. There’s a palpable sadness in observing how his initial love and happiness with Hana slowly dissolves. The author adeptly captures the feeling of watching a relationship slip away, something most people can understand. His lost twin figures heavily into the story, and one might wonder if Asterios can ever overcome his feeling of being incomplete. The book’s greatest strength is its illustration. It’s very clever. Unyielding, unemotional Asterios is portrayed in linear blue strokes, bringing to mind a blueprint. Hana, and artist, is often drawn with sketchy, cross-hatched lines. All of the characters have different fonts for their own dialogue, creating visual voices for each of them. It’s obvious that a lot of thought went into the rendering of these pages. The story dredges up themes from philosophy and Greek mythology, and there is a lot to chew on. I think it would take multiple readings to absorb most of the content of the book. I definitely enjoyed it.