Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Week 44: The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

I had wanted to read this book for a while, even though I had heard mixed reviews about it, with some calling it romantic and others, maudlin.  The truth is that it’s both.  But, it works. A book like this cannot succeed, in my opinion, without being a tiny bit sentimental – it’s a love story. But it is far more sad than it is romantic. It’s a deeply melancholy tale that is more about loss than love. This is the story of Henry and Clare, whose relationship spans nearly their entire lives due to Henry’s ability to time travel. He is unable to control it, and it is a burden in many ways for him. There is no rhyme or reason as to where or when he will end up. He simply disappears. This puts Clare in the position of being the one (as she puts it) “left behind”. She has to simply resume her life alone when Henry disappears, and try not to worry about him while he’s off in another time. This may sound like science fiction, and it is, but the essence of their relationship is something that many couples can relate to. Any couple that has to be apart for reasons such as long distance, or a job, or the military, will find that this book strikes a chord. On top of the very human element of Henry and Clare’s relationship, the time traveling layer is extremely interesting. At several points while reading this book, I marveled over the author’s ability to spin this tale. It’s complex in that it takes place in so many different times, yet it reads realistically because it is consistent in its portrayal of its characters, despite their multiple different ages in the story. Certain scenes foreshadow points in the book, but the reader is not aware of this until finishing it and reflecting on the story as a whole. It’s a lot to think about. I enjoyed this a great deal and find myself thinking about it often since I closed its pages.

Week 43: Gossip Girl: I Like It Like That, by Cecily von Ziegesar

I really enjoy the TV show Gossip Girl. It’s so snarky and brutal and just plain clever. It’s also chock full of couture fashion, which makes it fun to look at as well. Jamie is also a fan of the show, which prompted our friends to purchase this book for him while at a yard sale. I read it, thinking that it would make a nice, lighthearted book of the week. The book series preceded the show, and it was funny to read this particular volume and see how much is different. Many of the characters have been changed pretty dramatically (for example, Serena’s little gay brother on the show is her older, meathead jock brother in the book). What is not different is the ribald scandal that is woven throughout. It’s total smut and it is not apologetic in the least. It’s shallow, it name-drops constantly, and it’s not even written all that well, but it’s totally juicy and addictive. There is really not that much to say about the plot. It involves sex and parties with lots of booze and drugs. That’s all you need to know. It’s not a bad thing, though. I could possibly be convinced to read the other books in the series...perhaps!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Week 42: Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O'Nan

This was my book club’s latest pick. I read it in one sitting. It’s a quick read – it feels almost like a music video that was shot in one continuous take. It’s a fun book, yet it’s steeped in a bleak mood. The story revolves around Manny DeLeon, who is a manager at a New England Red Lobster that is about to close its doors permanently. Manny, and a few other of his staff, are headed the next day to The Olive Garden. On this last night at the “Lobster”, Manny tries to keep the restaurant’s final shift running smoothly, despite a blizzard and some complex feelings that are haunting him. Manny is expecting a child with his girlfriend Deena, but we learn that he was once seriously involved with another employee, Jacquie, who he cannot get over. He wrestles with his dwindling time with Jacquie, wondering what to say to her to convey his feelings. Meanwhile, there is a varying degree of drama emanating from every aspect of the restaurant: people getting stuck in the parking lot because it hasn’t been plowed, bratty children trashing the place, an angry employee taking off early but only after he has slashed the other employees’ coats. Manny weathers all of this beautifully, and it quickly becomes apparent that he is a great manager. More than that, he’s just a good guy. It’s impossible not to like him. The characters in the book are so realistically depicted, that they are truly entertaining. The appeal of the characters coupled with the frantic stress that comes with the holiday season creates a great read. Perfect book for this time of year.

Week 41: The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild, by Craig Childs

Sometimes it is impossible not to judge a book by its cover. I saw this book in the store and its beautiful cover sucked me in. Plus, what was not to like? A book about chance encounters with wildlife, segmented by the type of animal? Sign me up. I had returned from a camping trip out West and was longing to be in nature again. Unfortunately, I felt somewhat disappointed by this book. I am not sure why, but I think it has to do with the author himself. He’s not wholly appealing, and at times comes across as a bit pompous. The book’s chapters are each named after a specific animal, and in that chapter, Childs tells a story of his real-life encounter with that animal. I learned a few interesting tidbits (porcupines’ quills contain a natural antibiotic, because porcupines are apparently very clumsy and stick themselves a lot) and found certain parts of the book thrilling (Childs finds himself stalked by a mountain lion). Childs constructed and lived in a tipi in Colorado for a while, something I can dig. But when he tells his incredulous grandfather that it is “simply something he must do”, it’s like, OK guy. Take it down a notch. You want to live in a tipi, and that’s cool, but don’t proclaim yourself to be some sort of earth prophet. That tone persists and kind of ruined the book in places, but overall, it’s still an engaging read. Childs’ arrogance is something to learn from in the sense that he does not panic when confronted with a wild animal, but rather handles the situation sensibly. If one can take that perspective, as opposed to being annoyed, then I would recommend this book to any nature lover.

Week 40: Tinkers, by Paul Harding

I was drawn to Tinkers, frankly, because it had won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. When I picked up the book, it did not strike me as a Pulitzer winner. It’s a small book, a fairly short book, looking more like a young adult novel as opposed to a serious novel. These attributes, however, segue into what makes Tinkers appealing. It is a different sort of book. It’s somewhat abstract and single-minded in its subject matter. After reading a bit about the author and his Pulitzer win, I learned that Tinkers seemingly came out of nowhere to swoop up the prize, creating two camps of opinions: one, that Tinkers was a book about nothing; and the other, that Tinkers was a breath of fresh air. The book has to do with an old man on his deathbed. As he dies over the course of several days, surrounded by family, he reconnects with the memories of his family (particularly his father).  We don’t really get to know the old man all that well. We are only privy to certain aspects of his personality that play out as his mind deteriorates. Still, the reader feels a fondness for him as he mentally recounts parts of his childhood. There is a feeling of a passing of a torch, almost. The cycles of life and death are on full display here, as the old man’s family members tend to him. There is a melancholy emphasis on death’s inevitability. I suppose I’m making it all sound pretty dreadful, but in fact, I really enjoyed this read. Its poetic artfulness is what makes it transcend ordinary stories.