Books 2013

So hey, I like to read, and I bet you like to read too, cause you’re reading this. So, here’s what I’m reading. Tell me what you are!

12/13- The Last Samurai by Helen De Witt might be one of my favorite books ever. It’s a breathtaking ride through linguistics, history, geography, malaise and of course, the works of Kurosawa. The first few pages are really confusing- bear with them. They’re narrated by Sibylla, a lonely and incredibly intelligent American living in London, as she tries not to lose her mind from the demands of her toddler prodigy son. As she teaches Ludo Ancient Greek by four and exhaustedly watches over him as he more or less teaches himself a dozen other languages as well as higher maths, she frets about what to do about the fact that he has no father. When watching The Seven Samurai, she hits upon the idea that he can have seven father figures- all on film! (? Okay.) And so together Sibylla and Ludo watch the movie over and over, and it becomes a sort of punctuation to their lives. The rest of the book is narrated by Ludo as he grows to pre-adolescence, and tries to find the identity of his real father by deciphering the riddles Sibylla gives him whenever he asks.  Eventually he finds his real father, an arrogant travel writer, and is horrified (as only a ten year old can be?) by his faux intellectual pretenses. Despondent, and despairing over his mother, whose despair over her unfulfiling life is slowly sucking her under, he strikes upon the perfect solution. He can pick his own dad! He starts on a quest to try to convince various men that he’s their son, and the quest is by turns hilarious and absolutely heartbreaking. (Oh, Red Devlin!) Truly, my favorite book of the year.

12/13- The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall is an ambitious book about a polygamist family in Utah, and specifically about the moral and emotional malaise of the beleaguered man in the middle of a riotous, heaving mess of too many children and bickering and overbearing wives In the course of the book he becomes infatuated with another woman, falls afoul of his contractor boss, and examines how he came to be there, the husband of four, father of a ridiculous mess of kids with largely ridiculous names. Sideplots involve one of his sons, the troublesome one who acts out for lack of much needed attention, as he grapples (poorly) with his righteous anger at being born into such a family, at not having his needs met, and a lonely wife who has only one child and is banished to her own small house far away. Much of the book seems like an indictment against large families, and my heart bled for the senselessness of it- the kids who died cause their dumb parents were too fundamentally religious to get a doctor, the women trapped in their roles of hhousekeeper and childminder. A childhood friend of mine, Clare, was always bitter about being the youngest of 8 and her reasons always seemed valid. Since society’s moved on from subsistence farming communities, and since modern medicine pretty much guarantees you don’t need spare kids in case of illness or famine, and since preparation for modern living requires children to receive a certain amount of attention and supervision, it strikes me as breathtakingly selfish to have these huge families. (No offense, Agent Nick.) At the end there’s a strange turn, though, where Udall seems to… support it? Validate it? It was confusing.

11/13- Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson is one of those perfect, gently British mid-brow books. Set in a charming English village, it tells of a middle aged man of the stiff upper lip generation who falls for a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper. It’s mostly their decorum keeping them apart for most of the book, though their respective families do their bits. Though you know exactly how it’s going to end, you’ll read the book through anyway for the sheer enjoyment of their company.

11/13 The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Şafak is one of those lovely, perfectly inoffensive books, a great place to put your head for a bit, about which I guarantee I will remember very little in a year. It weaves together the story of Rumi and the wandering dervish who inspired him to become a poet, beginning with that dervish’s murder, which arrives in manuscript form at the house of a bored housewife who’s recently gotten work reading manuscripts and writing reports from home. There’s a romance between the writer and the reader, everything is suitably sad and hopeful at the end, there is nothing to dislike. There’s also nothing to gnaw at you for years to come. This seems to be her most popular book, but I preferred Bastard.

11/13 Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood. When Oryx and Crake came out I thought it was the most godawfully gorgeous thing Margaret Atwood ever did- even better than The Blind Assassin, which is a hard book to beat. When it ended it was like- having cake snatched away from you after the first bite, or when you’re getting all hot and bothered and then someone changes their mind. ARRGH! NO! I WANT MORE! And then! Miraculously! A year or so later there was more! There was The Year of the Flood! I got my fix and was still a little dissatisfied, but the story was fleshed out more. Still. Will I ever know what happens to Snowman the Jimmy? Well, sometimes books end in such a way that you’ll always wonder. BUT NO! IT’S A TRILOGY! I confess I did this wrong. I seldom re-read books because I fear I’m too impatient, I’ll get bored, but when I do re-read them I’m like, “Jeez, this is great! I should do this more often!” Then there are always so many new books- so very many new books… However. It’s been years. And I should have re-read the other two books first because I found myself so confused by who was who. Zeb? Ren? Oh right. Ren. Tobi was- a gardener or a Maddadamite? So hard to tell. So the plan is to re-read them all next year so I can enjoy Maddaddam more, being less confused. They are smart, dystopian books for people who like things that are good.

The House of Wittgenstein by Alexander Waugh ins’t the kind of book I usually go in for- it’s the biography of Wittgenstein- ya know, the philosopher dude whose crib notes you probably had to read in college, student of Bertrand Russell, refused to admit there wasn’t a rhinocerous in the room, beetle in a box thing (all factoids except the student of B. Russell taken from 15 year old memories of books that bored me cause his philosophy isn’t really discussed)- and his massively fucked up family. Probably the most interesting parts are in the beginning where there’s a pretty good description of Pre-War Vienna, and then a a pretty interesting lead up to WWI (which ı think ı’m going to start collecting, cause everyone seems to have a slightly different interpretation- think that Kurosawa movie where the girl gets raped and then four people tell the story differently) marred only by the Wittgenstein brothers who were remarkably bloodthirsty, and their crazy mom who was just so disappointed that the one brother who was stuck in America couldn’t come back to fight in the front lines because now she’s a little ashamed of him. Okay, not a  little. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?! ARE THEY ALL MAD?! In a word, yes. They are. And the book sort of devolved in the second half where one brother’s obsessively determined to be the world’s greatest one handed pianist, the other’s renounced all wealth and is living in, like a garden shed, one sister’s a shrew sending haranguing letters to everyone in the family and her husband is certifiable, there’s something like twelve suicides for every fifty pages, (which I suppose is par for the course when you’re writing about intelligentsia)  and because this is straight biography it’s drier than you’d think. There are also long passages about music at the time, which clearly show the author’s deep knowledge and love of pre-and post war “classical” music, which I have, frankly, always found a little aggressively-intellectual in a dull way. (Neat! You made violins screech!) But all in all, good palate cleanser. 

11/13- Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. So in the summer of 99 I went to visit Lou in Park Slope when Park Slope was still kinda gritty and Polish-y, before the great Strokes-ification of Brooklyn was in full swing, and he left me alone for the afternoon to go to work, encouraging me to go outside and explore. I didn’t. A. it was really, really hot that day. B. You think I get lost easy now? Pssh. You shoulda seen me before I had 15 additional years of navigational experience under my belt. Plus it was the Time Before Cellphones when not being able to find your lodgings was a serious pain in the butt. Anyway, in the seven hours he was away I found a vinyl copy of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and listened to it for the first five times in my life- beginning to end- and thought it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard. And I picked The Cement Garden off a shelf and read it cover to cover, sprawled on his cracked white vinyl couch which sucked at my skin when I shifted, so hot was it, and thought it was one of the most awful things I’d ever read. Not because it was poorly written- not at all. The pacing was good, the building tension well handled. But what cause has something to be so deliberately ugly? So utterly without grace? And so I developed the Cement Garden Scale of Deliberate and Unnecessary Ugliness. Scale of 1-3, Geek Love comes in at a solid 2, perhaps 2.5. Split the dif- 2.25, barely escaping a three with a smattering of darkly comic moments. It was a real shock after the sadness but ultimate beauty of Goldfinch. And I mean, I suppose there isn’t a lot you can do when the premise is ugliness, internal and external. Since I don’t want to think about this book much longer I’ll run through some of the basic elements with you quickly: a family of terribly deformed children engineered by their normal parents to be that way through cocktails of drugs so they could keep their traveling circus open, one of whom is hateful to the point of evil and possibly murderous, a cult of mutilation, a serial mutilator, tons of descriptions of deformed and mutilated people and acts of violence, a psychotic nurse… yeah I’m done. I need a  palate cleanser.

11/13 The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is, I think, her best yet. The Little Friend was beautiful and her characters were eerily recognizable, so fully fleshed were they, but dark, brooding, and in many ways ugly. The Secret History was good, but had a nonsensical magical realism in the beginning tying it together. And there was something lovely about it- I love books about magical seeming boarding schools, and it managed to capture a PG Wodehouse world of privilege mixed with Evelyn Waugh at his Brideshead Revisited dissolution verging on despair best, but at the end I just had to agree with myself that the premise made little sense. However this book was lovely and complete. I loved it so much I was a little chagrined when, waiting in the optometrist’s office, I discovered People magazine loved it. But great books come from odd places and I shouldn’t be such a snob. See below: airports.

The book follows a young fella who loses his mama in a random act of terrorism in a museum one afternoon when, (this broke my heart) his mama was really mad at him for some infraction at school. Suffering a concussion from the blast but otherwise mostly unhurt, he dazedly steals a painting of the titular name, and takes a ring from a dying old man, promising to return it to a particular address. Then he goes home, unstopped because the building has been evacuated due to a second bomb threat, and waits for his mama, who never comes. What follows is 700 more pages of his journey to manhood, and his dilemma over what to do with the painting. At thirteen he envisions being slammed into jail for taking it. (Tartt does frightened, naive, delusional kids really well.) As an adult he knows he’s actually prosecutable. The paranoia, as well as the constant ache for his mother, and later his father, follows him along a sort of truncated picaresque through the rarefied world of the Upper West to the scummy outskirts of Nevada, (where Boris, oh Borya! I love you! probably the most entertaining character in the whole book appears) to a shabby antiques restoration company. It follows him through rampant drug and alcohol abuse, many bad dreams, an engagement, and longing for the girl he’s loved since the day of the blast, and finally to Amsterdam, looking for resolution.

My only, only complaint with the book is that the end is a bit unweildy. It’s as though Tartt, weary from writing an almost 800 page book, simply didn’t have the energy to edit herself, and her editors, weary of editing an almost 800 page book, didn’t have the energy to edit her anymore either. Much of the climax is told through other characters, and I love me some Boris, but he rambles and doesn’t answer questions directly. Neither does Hobie. And the denouement it just goes on and on and on and yes, it’s all lovely, great philosophical stuff about beauty and life and art and despair, but much of it, especially about the history and meaning of the painting, has already been said. If it’d been cut down by a third, and if half of Boris’s ramblings coulda been third personed into a straightforward “then he told me X” this would have been perfect, perfect, perfect.

11/13- Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter- I happened to see this one in the airport while I was waiting in a bored desultory fashion to buy water at the newsagent store, next to something about the true story of Downton Abbey, (a show I loathe but we can discuss that over drinks) and I only picked it up because the little “this book is great!” blurb on the cover was from NPR. Now if y’all been with me so far you know I don’t like mass market airport paperbacks, and the Dan Browns and Ken Follets of the world, and no offense but I love language, and I love nothing more than when an author plays with language. When a writer can both tell a good story and make every line into a poem. And you can’t do that if you’re writing to a fourth grade level, avoiding difficult vocabulary and difficult verb tenses. So I eye paperbacks in airports with suspicion. But if NPR is endorsing it? Okay. I went home and a week later remembered to download it and boy am I glad I did. Ms. Walter manages to deftly weave together a story about an Italian Hotelier in a dying seaside village, an actress caught up in the machinations of an over eager producer, the filming of Cleopatra and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s love affair, the same producer in modern day, his ambitious and dissatisfied assistant, a luckless script writer, a failed writer and alcoholic car salesman, and an alcoholic, drug dependent, once punk band front man 40 year old. And it all works. Seamlessly. And kind of makes you want to cry at the end.

11/13- The Lacemakers of Glenmara by Heather Barbieri is just the kind of book I need to read as a palate cleanser every now and then. It’s not the guilty pleasure dessert of a good chicklit book with a martini or heels or a necklace or something on the embossed cover where (preferably British) ladies grouse and go on dates and sleep with the wrong men and get themselves into terrible scrapes, all while drinking wallops of wine and shopping every other second, no, it’s a book of gentleness to the point of vapidity, a wispy sherbet of a thing. The characters in this book are so unbelievably virtuous (though all endowed with some kind of character flaw like irascibility or timidity) that one can’t identify with them at all, the action is gentle but punctuated by moments of Hallmark movie grief to keep things from getting too sunshiney. (One lady dies peacefully. One lady’s husband beats her one time too many and she winds up- I’m a little fuzzy on it? I think she was in a coma from having a broken arm? I don’t think the authoress consulted a doctor when doing her research) The basic plot is a young lady who’s just lost her mom and her boyfriend goes tramping around Ireland, lost and bewildered, winds up in tiny village full of middle aged lace makers with whom she prefers to hang out rather than, say, slumming it at local pub but whatever, she reinvigorates their lace making business with her innovative ideas, she learns from them, they learn from her, and along the way she meets a handsome man with a tragic past and they fall in love after she wins an Irish dancing competition, sorry if there were too many spoilers but the plot doesn’t matter so much as the dreamy feeling this book gives you of “I could tramping in Ireland and win a dance competition.” Think of it as a watered down Elizabeth Gaskell.

11/13- Thank You For Smoking by Christopher Buckley. I remember really liking this movie when it came out. I watched it again after I finished reading the book to see if it captured the book well and no- the book is far zanier, darker and much, much, MUCH more fun. Recommend.

11/13- Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. So I was reluctant to read this book for a while cause the title is, let’s be honest, a little precious. The book however was lovely. It follows an old Chinese man who’s just lost his beloved wife to cancer as he remembers his first love, a Japanese girl, and their star crossed love affair (his dad was a SUPER Chinese nationalist, she was ultimately interned in a camp) and his efforts to find her. Parts of it don’t make a whole lot of sense. Do grown ups really care that much about barely adolescent puppy love? If you found out your dad had a super crush on a girl when he was 13 would you go to great trouble and expense to track said lady down? But all in all a very decent read.

10/13- Unknown. I picked up a book in a hostel in Panama and read the rather lengthy thing through but cannot remember the name nor the author so there we go. But it posed a question to me that I now pose to you: is it actually illegal for a Latina authoress to write a novel which does not rely heavily on magical realism to tie the plot together?

10/13- Half a Life: a novel by VS Naipaul. I liked A Bend in the River. This book was far less successful on a number of levels, the most relevant I think being that I don’t want to spend a bunch of time with a man who never does anything with his life, or his father who never did anything with his, particularly when there is neither a moment of redemption nor a moment of dissolution. Please, Naipaul. Gimme SOMETHING. However, it did spark an interesting argument- what’s more depressing- 1950’s Irish lit, or post-partition Indian lit?

10/13- Chronic City and then back to Jonathan Lethem, but honestly I’m runnin low on my Kindle folder so there it was. One of the things that I love about JL that I voiced to L- “He’s amazing. He manages to string you along for fully half a book before you figure out what’s going on. I mean lookit- I’m at 49% according to my Kindle- I just got a clue. And yet I’m still on the seat of my pants, despite having had no clue what the plot was before right this minute.”   The point remains, this man is a plot genius, and even his worst stories deserve careful scrutiny as to how they unfolded. This one’s bout a fella who used to be a shining tv star who now lives off residuals who falls in with a group of misfits and (everyone knows one obsessive record collector, right? If not, cultivate one) some unsavories and the end is mystifying and wonderful.

10/13 The Lotus Eaters: A Novel by Tatjana Soli I picked this up thinking it would be an Oprah kinda book but NOOOO. Lord this was a lovely novel of the Vietnam War. Female reporter in the jungle, lots of crazy shit. Not Tim O’Brian shit, but shit nontheless. Lady shows up naive and with few camera skills, winds up in on eof the very few cumbersome love triangles in literary history as she gets more hooked on the war and the next best shot, and ultimately- meh, I won’t say. A beautiful, fascinating book that makes you wanna keep reading even if your rum glass is empty.

10/13 Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. As far as food books go, this was a bit subpar in terms of Kurlanski at his best, (all the acclaim went to Salt but C’mon, people, Cod?) and far below more academic texts like my perennial favorite: Food in Britain from the Stone Age to the Modern Age, the book that I discovered in a discard pile at the Enoch Pratt free library at the age of 24 that introduced me to the whole genre and changed everything I feel about food. However, it filled in a few duh! gaps for me, that actually helped my cooking in Panama. For instance: OOOOOoooohhhh, right. In hot climates they can’t hang meat, so they mince it to tenderize it. Right. And some stuff about Mughals vs Hindus that I didn’t quite know. Anyhoosit, recommend it to anyone who wants to puzzle over Indian Food menus in a different way, or anyone who believes in some supreme pure cuisine of any given land (ahem, Turks) because there isn’t one. Cuisine is formed by commercialism, imperialism, globalism, famine, and a whole host of other isms that would make your head spin so stop talking about ‘authentic’ already. (signed, official food grump.)

10/3 The Gone Away World by Nick Harkaway After the trudgery of the second half of the Fall of Giants, (yes, I know that’s not a word. It’s evocative though) this was balm for my soul. The plot was ingenious and never let me down. A quarter of the book was about two boys growing up together, and the rest was set in a post apocalyptic world, after someone sets off a Go Away bomb in a dispute over a fictional mountainous country somewhere in the Middle East, probably, a bomb which literally makes things… go away. No explosions, just gone. It has unpredicted results, however, creating vacuums in the world from which emerge MONSTERS. Then there are pirates, sinister corporations, bombs, mimes, a mysterious and threatened school of martial arts called The School of the Voiceless Dragon, and most important, ninjas. What saves it from being an overwrought children’s comic is the language, which is sheer lunacy, in the best way, and frighteningly clever. He does not just describe one man as English and another as German, for instance. He says: “…from which it is possible to deduce that although Mr. Jarndice was what is usually for the sake of brevity known as English (i.e., possessed of a genetic heritage including the DNA of warring Angles, Normans, Saxons, Jutes, Picts, Celts, Kerns, shipwrecked Catholic Spaniards, fleeing Sephardi Spaniards, and curious Moorish Spaniards, and also mercantilist Burgundians, Viking Scandawegians, rampaging Goths, sullen Vlams and the occasional dislocated Magyar) his fellow rationalist and educator was a pure German (specifically a Teuton-Tartar-Turkic-Russ-Ashkenazi-Franco-Prussian).” There’s a sentence that goes on for like, four pages an excerpt of which dizzyingly reads, “…unquestioningly would look with disfavor and consequent litigiousness upon the inevitable wranglings and disputations resulting from said rooking, hornswoggling, grifting and humbuggery, should any ill befall in the due exercise of our discretion and judgement of whatever hare-brained adventure the party of the first part (the pencilneck) chose to inflict on the soft skin and girlish charms of the second part (the naive and open-hearted drivers of the toughest and most competent civil freebooting company in the world).” Whew! When I discovered, last night, that Nick Harkaway has only written two novels, and I’ve now read both of them, I was heartbroken.

9/13- Fall of Giants by Ken Follet. Okay, I have to disagree with just about everyone I know and respect. Rach, Nick- looking at you. I fucking hate Ken Follet. Seriously. The first bit of this book was actually fairly interesting, cause it was all about how WWI started, and the unionizing/socializing forces at play at that time, and I didn’t hate it. As the book ground on, though, the story telling became flatter- good guys were always good, bad guys were always bad, people who loved each other never fought or, after the first blush of infatuation, found themselves looking around going, “what’s THAT person like in bed?” as you do no matter how much you love someone, people who were in loveless marriages never didn’t fight and were always cheating on each other, and all character motivations were spelled out, in, like, crayons. And it wasn’t til I was talking to Owe the other night, and I was all, “This is a terrible book! The average length of a sentence is nine words!” And he was like, “That’s a style choice! You’re being a snob and basing this on personal preference!” And I was all, “Read a couple paragraphs! I’m going to the ladies!” and I came back and he was all, “I see your point. The problem with this book is the Flesch-Kincaid index. It’s why you’ll never see long sentences, or, in particular the passive.” That I was all OOOHHHH. This is dumbed down for the massiest of mass appeal. Shame too. Interesting topic.

9/13-Detectives and Adventurers: The Complete Stories Agatha Christie I read this in Turkish jail, as we are all aware, and I have been traumatized and will never read Agatha Christie again.

9/13- The Sonderberg Case by Elie Weisel. I wanted to like this book. I really did. It’s by Elie Weisel, y’all! Who could hate on that? We all read and cried over Night! But in the end I could not, simply could not. It had too much going on- a court case, German guilt, German unrepentance, Jewish mysticism, some Primo Levi Periodic Table wacky Jewish family shit, suddenly finding out you’re adopted melodrama, searching for the disappeared in post war Europe suspense, lots of grappling with blame. I totally skim-read through the last 20 pages because I just wanted it to be OVER.

9/13- Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell- I was dubious about this book cause, you know. It’s a movie with Tom Hanks in it. And having now read the book, you could not PAY me to see the movie. Not a million bucks. There’s just no way a movie could capture the sheer scope and weirdness and loveliness of this story, or rather, six interlocking stories, particularly, no offense to his craft and long and storied career, (I mean, who didn’t love him in Big?) a Tom freaking Hanks vehicle. A seven season HBO series might come close, but those of you who like to read know the book is always better. I downloaded this book four times, literally, because I always got to the same point where the first narrative- an insurance man sailing in the South Pacific in the 1860’s with a mysterious and possibly sinister doctor- the story stopped in the middle of a sentence, and I was for SURE I had gotten a corrupted file. Four frustrating downloads later, I finally wikipedia-ed the book and discovered that that was SUPPOSED to happen. Ooooohhhh. There are six distinct narratives: the man on the boat; a story about a young, bisexual, disinherited musician who binds himself as an amanuensis to an aging and ill musician, and begins working on his own sextet of the titular name; a mystery about a reporter investigating a nuclear powerplant and a very dangerous cover-up in the 1970’s; a post apocalyptic tale set in Korea about a service clone who becomes threatened by the state when, thanks to an accidental or maybe on purpose switch of her designer genes, she transcends her purpose to genius; and a post-post apocalyptic world (with a stunning, take-away your breath language that, like Shakespeare, is close enough to modern English to glean meaning, and makes a total, liquid-thrill sense that this would be the language of the future) about a man living on a radiation plagued island in the South Pacific, tending goats, hounded by warring tribes and threatened, perhaps, by the mysterious presence of a woman who comes from a huge and mysterious boat. These seem disparate, but they come together in a rare, rare fit of virtuosity. Well done, Mr. Mitchell.

8/13- Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby This was just a lovely book. It perfectly captured obsessive fandom, (not that I know anyone who’s an obsessive fan) and the weirdness of musicians. 

8/13 The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaimon. I needed a Neil Gaimon fix. I devoured this in one day, partially by walking and reading at the same time. It was wonderful.

8/13 The Crow Road by Iain Banks. Okay first off, this book has the awesomest opening line ever: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” Don’t you want to read more? You should. When this book was good, it was absolutely sublime. A little more than half way through, the narrator falls into a reverie about the geological history of Scotland that took my breath away- I read it four times before moving on- and struck me as being the prose version of what Terrence Malick was going for in that famous sequence in his epically frustrating The Tree of Life, but didn’t quite hit. There was another really good interior monologue comparing people to blades of grass. The story follows two generations of a Scottish family, jumping giddily back and forth through time, and between the first person narrator of the grandson of the exploding grandmother and third person omniscient rest of the clan. There are marvelous scenes of childhoods- Banks is great with little kids and sullen teenagers alike- and in that dozey half moment between raising your eyes from the book and coming to in the real world, you half believe that the people in this fully realized world are your family members, and that you are, in fact, Scottish. The central mystery of the novel is an uncle who vanished without a trace in the early nineteen eighties, and the only time the book flagged for me was in the last third, when omniscient third, and the lovely family scenes, were abandoned and I was left with the narrator on his obsessive quest to locate his missing uncle. The narrator was someone I would have loved to have hung out with when I was his age- 22- he’s brilliant, very funny, a little depressive, self absorbed. I am, however, 34 and I grew a little weary of hanging out with him during his difficult transition between adolescence and manhood.

8/13 A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif. What are the odds of reading two really good books in a row? When you’re as unpicky a book picker upper as I, slim. This book was SUPERB. Seriously lovely. The author handles shifts in point of view and time breathtakingly deftly. The story centers around Ali Shigri, as likeable/unlikeable/totally understandable a main character since Balram Halwai of The White Tiger, and his military dormmate and best friend- perhaps with benefits? I won’t spoil it- Baby O, the poet too sensitive for military life. Baby O goes AWOL in the first few pages of the book and what  happens after is a bureaucratic nightmare for Shigri as higher ups try to figure out how his pal stole a plane and where he went. No one believes that he knows nothing, and as the book progresses, we realize that we, the readers, also have no idea how much Shigri knows. The story begins and ends with the last few minutes of General Zia’s life before his spectacular assassination by exploded aircraft, but in between we follow Shigri on his desperate quest to find Baby O before the government does, through interrogation rooms and down rabbit holes into his past, into mughal dungeons, to elaborate dinners with vice presidents, and along countless marching drills, and we also get to eavesdrop on a host of Zia’s political enemies as they scheme and squabble for power, and even Zia himself as he comes increasingly unglued by paranoia and fundamentalism. So who did kill General Zia? Well, who knows, really. But this book is a really entertaining version of real life events.

7/13 The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Şafak So I put off reading this book cause I was soooo disappointed by Orhan Pamuk. Man, I canNOT get into his books. So when everyone was like, Elif Şafak! Elif Şafak! I was dubious. Call me Thomas, for I have felt the wounds of the Lord. This book is MARVELOUS. Rough sketch- two families: one quirky Istanbuller family full of too many women because the men are cursed to die young, one diaspora American Armenian, linked by blood and forgotten or overly remembered tragedies, collide over a week in March in Istanbul. There are also two Djins and some serious magical realism shit. I nodded knowingly a lot- at the way the Turkish women were both fiercely proud of being so Western and fiercely proud of not being Western at all, of how proud they were to show off their city and what a good impression they wanted to make on foreigners, their misconceptions of America and lack of concept of privacy. Too, I recognized the complete vacuum of knowledge of Armenian affairs, of 1910 and 1915. It’s been wiped from the collective memory, and as Ms. Şafak noted, history here began in 1923. She also did a great job describing American Armenians, and even the impossible distance between an American Armenian and a Turkish one. When the young Armenian girl asks a Turkish Armenian man why he doesn’t leave Istanbul, why he doesn’t flee the country that persecuted his people and live in America, and he gravely informs her that he is Istanbulite, primarily, and they cannot comprehend each other- that was extraordinarily powerful, and perhaps more so for having been sketched with a light touch. It’s very interesting to read this now, knowing that Ms. Şafak faced 3 years in prison for writing it, and that more and more writers and journalists are disappearing every day. In this book I see the beginnings of Gezi Park, and perhaps the end, too.

7/13 The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg. This is the kind of fucked up family narrative that better have something going for it, like the kinda loopy Southern nostalgia in the Divine Secrets of the Yaya Sisterhood, or basically be a perfect novel, like The God of Small Things, to hold my attention. I may be the only fairly well educated, white, middle class girl who lists reading as her favorite activity on social media sites to have hated The Corrections. Correction- it should have something going for it, (it doesn’t) or I should be working myself to the bone and be in such a stupor at the end of the day I can’t be bothered to pick out another book. The narrator is perplexing. She seems to have the emotional depth and psychological insight of a seven year old. She made it to her mid-fifties and had never experienced death before. (?) The way she responds to the gradual unfolding of her family’s dirty laundry shows a complete lack of grasp of any kind of understanding of human emotion or motivation. Not a woman I’d wanna have a glass of wine with. Not even if she was holding the last bottle in town.

7/13 The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway. It’s true for me and many of my book-loving friends- we are all wandering the earth forlornly, feeling faintly bereft, looking for another Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which was perfection- literary and smart, with footnotes and everything, but magical in a way that reminds one of the best books of childhood, books that made one think maybe magic IS possible. The prologue and first chapter of this book promised many JS & Mr. N elements- supernatural occurrences in a castle in Regency England, a modern day flashback to the Napoleonic Wars,- and there were many very pleasing parts of this story- a cross century romance, time travelling- but it fell apart in others. The basic plot is a Marquess named Nick finds himself ripped from the heat of battle to the modern day, where he is picked up by a mysterious corporation called the Guild whose sole purpose seems to be to pick up people who’ve accidentally fallen through time, and set them up with new identities and ridiculous amounts of cash. He lives fairly peacefully and happily as a Vermont dairy farm owner for a decade before the Guild calls him back on a mission- he must now travel back in time and resume his identity for some secret mission. As the Marquess again, he remeets his neighbor, a lady with dark eyes whose image has comforted him throughout the years, and they fall in love. But there are mysterious forces at foot- a splinter group of time travellers called the Ofan who may or may not be time-travelling guerillas, some world-threatening force called the Pale which is hurtling from the future and may destroy everything, a mysterious and sinister man called Mr. Mibbs- and nothing and nobody are what they seem. It was a fine world to put my brain for a few days but as a book it suffered from long, protracted explanations of how time travelling works, which were largely nonsensical, and so, after bit, boring, and clunky, self-conscious dialogue. As Marquess, Nick’s dialogue was alternately fairly comfortably Regency-ish, and oddly, distractingly modern, but modern as envisioned by a literature teacher in the rarefied air of an ivy league university (which the authoress, in fact, is). Character motivation was frustratingly obscure. About seven times in the latter half of the book Nick became enraged to the point of violence and I never quite understood how he got there. Supporting characters were sloppy patchworks of various personality traits that appeared when necessary to propel the plot forward. The book ends on a cliff hanger, and there is supposedly a sequel on the way. I may read it when it comes out, but I may forget to.

7/13 The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. This book gave me a really bad dream. The worst bad dreams are the ones where you’re in your bed, lying approximately in your actual position, and then messed up shit happens like you see a ghost or a murderer breaks in or something, and upon waking it’s double hard to shake the nightmare feeling cause you’re in your bed, and that’s where the nightmare happened. The human brain is a sick bastard. Anyway in this nightmare I was lying in bed unable to sleep, and I looked over and on the floor next to my bed there was a deer carcass, whole except all the flesh had been stripped away from the neck, and all that remained were the tendons and spine. “I know I should do something about that,” I thought, “but I have to be at work in four hours and I need to sleep.” (HOW DID MY BRAIN KNOW WHAT TIME IT WAS? The human brain is a remarkable, but sick fuck.) I tossed and turned, in my sleep, for a little bit, and then looked over and the head of the dear had turned into the head of a wild cat, but with perfect dream logic I decided that I just didn’t remember that it hadn’t been a cat’s head before. Again, I had concerns about sleeping enough for my upcoming 11 teaching hour day, and I rolled over and decided to deal with the cat-deer corpse in the morning. Then I heard rustling and realized that the cat-head part was actually still alive and sort of scootching its way closer to my bed, trailoing the dear neck tendons behind it. “OH MY GOD, FUCK THIS, I HAVE TO SLEEP!” I screamed in my sleep and bashed a pillow on top of the cat head which was looking at me- open mouthed- with a fair amount of ire. “UGGH.” I flopped over and then woke up for real, in the same position, the only difference being I was wearing the green nightie instead of the yellow one from the dream, and there was no deer corpse with no neck but the head of a possessed cat on my floor. Why did I have this dream, you might ask. Well, there is a TON of animal cruelty in this book. And it’s for good purpose and the story is incredibly well told, and the ending is just shocking, but when it happens you feel like an idiot cause all the signs were there all along. Excellent, excellent read. But if you’re in a reading-for-company mood, avoid.

7/13 The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. This is a perfect summer read, especially in a summer full of stress and political turmoil. Despite working 56 hours in the classroom, I finished this rather long book in three days, mostly on my balcony, at night, with a glass of much needed wine in my hand. This isn’t the best book that’s ever been written, but it was a perfect escape. Train commuters take note- you’re not going to work! You’re in a magical fantasy world full of magic, malice, and love!

7/13 Gun With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem. This book was GREAT. Everything I love about Lethem- brilliant, a little daft, a lot clever- but even better cause fuck, this guy was totally channeling George Saunders in his The Brief and Terrifying Reign of Phil best. The future is dystopic and makes no sense but a certain resonating emotional sense. With noir-era wisecracks.

6/13 Dune Road by Jane Green. That’s right. I read one book in June and it was chick lit. Fuck you for judging. The world fell apart.

5/13 You Don’t Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem. Here are a few things I love: the ’90’s, garage rock, garage rock from the ’90’s, and Jonathan Lethem. This wasn’t his finest book by a long shot. It lacks all the absurd brilliance that made my head swim and my heart beat faster through Fortress of Solitude and As She Climbed Across the Table (how can anyone manipulate language and reality that perfectly?!) but it was a pleasant romp through ’90’s hipster LA, which was different enough from ’90’s hipster Baltimore and New York to be interesting, but contained all the familiar set pieces- ridiculous installation art, shitty jobs, brown corduroy pants, the god-like underground radio John Peel character, girls wearing sneakers all the time. (He didn’t say converse, but I knew.) I liked it quite a bit.

5/13 The Land Of Laughs by Jonathon Carroll  is one of those books that is ruined because it’s told in the first person by a narrator that I’m pretty sure was devised by a 15 year old boy. Oh my god, the self-consciously clever wisecracks said in asides to the reader or tossed out “casually” in dialog, (I can imagine the main character pausing a little too long and looking out from the pages to see if I caught how clever he is) MAKE IT STOP. The fact that the last 5% of the book was genuinely awesome climax doesn’t help this book at all.

5/13 The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue I’m kind of buggin right now ’cause when I started reading this book I thought I’d made a mistake, and Amazon just assured me I didn’t. See two years ago, I guess, I read this really great piece of contemporary fiction called The Room. It was well written, suspenseful, and pretty great. She pulled off the remarkable feat of writing entirely from the perspective of a five year old without the prose ever flagging or things ever becoming dull or tedious, as they tend to do, frankly, when a five year old speaks to you for any length of time. So I picked up The Sealed Letter, which was sort of an overwrought period drama, with sort of Sarah Waters plot twists- betrayals, burnt letters, secret lesbianism, scandal… but without Ms. Waters’ madness and fun. The language was sort of self consciously Victorian. All in all it was a little meh, but not terrible enough to put down, so ı didn’t. So I’m thinking that either there are two Emma Donoghues, or that I got her name wrong. On Amazon, though, both books link back to the same author page, which is very puzzling indeed.

5/13In Sunlight and Shadow by Mark Helprin, who is a hopeless romantic. A soldier, he writes very well about war, duty, masculinity, etc. He writes so often and so well about the importance of being fit, he gives me rather a complex every time I read one of his books. He also writes about love in a way that makes me tear up at certain times of the month, but which also makes me want to throttle him. Love, for Helprin, is what I thought love was like when I was ten- at first sight, absolute, and capable of overcoming any obstacle. Eff you, Mark. Love is messy and full of squabbles patched together with sex, and sometimes you find yourself plotting the grisly murder of the love of your life. I’d respect you a lot more if you acknowledged that from time to time. At the same time, I’m eternally grateful you don’t. SO CONFUSİNG. Anyway, this book is about a fella who comes back from years of honorable service in WWII to find  that his father’s business is threatened by economic forces and corruptions born in the aftermath of the war. He meets a Catherine Hale, trust fund baby and aspiring actress who I’m told so many times to like and admire throughout the book that I eventually do, and of course their romance is threatened by the changing world. Just when you’re getting sick of dealing with white girl problems, he flashbacks to a pretty awesome war scene that kept me, at least, on the edge of my seat. Then some other stuff happened and I wanted to throw the book against the wall, but was ultimately glad I read it.

Infinite Jest by DFW. So don’t expect this page to be updated anytime soon. I put off reading it for a long time ’cause I was daunted by the length. About a million and a half pages, (not sure ’cause I’m Kindling it but my educated guess is about a million and a half) 100,000 of which are footnotes (again, educated guess.) Damn I’m sorry I didn’t get to live in this world sooner. Seriously lovely. And the first book in about a decade that’s sent me running for the dictionary. And I teach vocab for both SAT and GRE, so… that’s saying something. 4/3/13 Update, have finished Infinite Jest. Am feeling somewhat stunned. Read it, seriously. But word to the wise, read at least part of the wikipedia plot outline first, so you don’t, as I did, find yourself overwhelmed and mired by the first third of the book, wherein one thousand or so characters are introduced, you have no way of knowing who’s major and who’s minor, and nothing much seems to be happening.

One Response to Books 2013

  1. Barbara Bury says:

    Hi, just stumbled across your blog two days ago. My husband and I just booked a 20 day tour of Turkey next April, so I thought I would check out some Turkey news, blogs etc on Twitter. “Turkeys for Life” retweeted your bog about going to Izmer. Your lack of planning just cracked me up…….as you can see, I’m planning now for a trip in April!!!! Then I read your description of the Chinese restaurant and realized you perhaps were from Baltimore? ….or at least were here for a while. I grew up in Baltimore and am currently living in Ellicott City! Small world isn’t it! I’m really enjoying your writing. While looking over your blog, I came across your book reviews. I’ll check out “the Bastard of Istanbul” since I was looking for some fiction to read about Turkey. I just finished two really good books ( of course I don’t know yet what would appeal to you), but have a look at these two….”Let the Great World Spin”, by Colin McCann and “Benedicion” by Kent Haruf. Have fun on your travels!!! good talking to you! Barbara Bury

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