Monday, July 27, 2009

Atlas of Unknowns (2009)

Atlas of Unknowns by Tania James (2009) is exactly the reason why I love the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. It is the debut novel by an author I had never heard of, and something I probably never would have read on my own. And I really really really really liked it. And I think you would too.

Atlas of Unknowns is the story of two sisters in Kerala, India who live with their widowed father, Melvin, and their grandmother, Ammachi. The oldest daughter, Linno, loses her hand in an accident with a firecracker when she is seven years old, but retains her artistic talent and has filled a sketchbook and the local store windows with her art by the time she is in her early twenties. The youngest, Anju, is a brilliant student who has a chance to study at an elite high school in New York for a year on a full scholarship. When Anju makes the unthinking decision to pass her sister's artwork off as her own to set herself off from the other scholarship applicants it wins her the visa to New York but seriously shakes her relationship with her sister and has consequences that no one can predict.

The core of the story sounds simple, but the personalities and history of the family, together with the clashing traditions of India and post-911 New York color this novel and give it the complex character of real life. James gives each character a solid voice -- not just the sisters and their family, but Anju's famous host mother (the Indian member of a "The View"-like TV show), Linno's blind suitor and his sister, a fading Indian actress, the owner of a salon in New York, the Jewish classmate with a crush on Anju, and every other one of the people who move in and out of the orbit of the story.

And the ending was perfect.

I will admit that I am particularly partial to books about sisters, but this book was undeniably great. Want to borrow it?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

My second favorite meal... grilled cheese with tomato soup. And even though it was really hot out yesterday, I decided to run the oven and roast up a bunch of veggies for this really quite delicious and easy Roasted Tomato Soup recipe. I think I should have roasted the tomatoes a little bit longer (but, as mentioned before, it was really hot out already and I got impatient about having the oven on), but it was still delicious. Three onions seems like a lot, but they just melt into the soup when you blend it and every flavor balances perfectly.

To make it an extra exciting dinner, I made fancy grilled cheese sandwiches using fontina and gouda cheese and a very exciting roasted garlic bread that I got at HEB.

Oh my god. I want to eat it again right now. Luckily the soup made lots of leftovers...

[P.S. My favorite meal is tacos. You can ask Dr. M: if it possible to turn any combination of food into a taco, I will try it.]

[Photo by roboppy]

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Young Törless (1906)

Robert Musil's Young Törless (1906) [also translated as The Confusions of Young Törless] is my next stop on the reverse-alphabetical-by-title version of Harold Bloom's Western Canon list.

Robert Musil (1880-1942) was an Austrian novelist who is best known for his lengthy, unfinished, and posthumously published novel The Man Without Qualities. Young Törless is his first novel, a coming-of-age story about a sensitive and literary young man named Törless and his experiences at an Austrian military boarding school. Musil first claimed that the book was based on his own experiences, but later denied that the book had anything to do with his own life.

Törless has a profound sense of indifference to regular life and a disconnection from his fellow pupils. Despite this, he has been befriended by two older students and accompanies them to their secret hideout in the attic of the school where they make decisions about how to wield their power and philosophies. Although he is with the other boys most of the time, Törless seems to live his life in his own head and on the sheets of paper where he writes out his thoughts and discoveries about life. Much of his time is spent analyzing his new-found sexual desires and wondering if the dark thoughts he has are shared by anyone else. Törless feels the best when he can make himself feel so martyred or shameful that he knows he must be different from the other boys at the school and from his parents and the other grown-ups.

When his two friends discover that a younger boy has stolen money from one of their lockers, they take it upon themselves to teach him a lesson. Törless is fascinated by the weaker boy and his acquiescence to the mental, physical and sexual torment brought on by the older students. Törless always holds himself at a distance from the other boys and their actions, even though he is intimately involved in the encounter, and it is only when he is forced to act that he makes any move to alter the situation.

Many readers have seen parallels to the rise of the Nazi party in Young Törless, and its scientific fascination with punishment, justice, and isolation make it a sometimes difficult book to read. Once the reader really enters the claustrophobic mind of young Törless, however, the philosophies and morality make for a fascinating piece of literature.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Toothpaste plug?

I don't know why, but I love this new kind of aqua fresh so much that I have to tell the world about it. Seriously. I don't even like to brush my teeth that much, and usually feel pretty indifferent to toothpaste (and pretty irritated when things are marketed as being "extreme" that clearly are not), but this stuff is amazing.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)

Have you read any Agatha Christie yet? Because she is extremely awesome and not boring and conventional like you might think. In fact, her 1926 novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was so controversial when it came out (due to a twist ending that I'm not going to reveal) that critics were divided and other mystery writers aghast.

In this mystery a widow has apparently committed suicide one year after her husband's mysterious death. The town doctor confirms the death and later dines with a friend (and the wealthiest man in town), who was also close with the widow. After the doctor leaves the man's house for the evening, he is called back only to find his friend has been stabbed in the neck. And there we have the murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Lucky for (almost) everyone, a strange foreigner has recently moved to the town for his retirement. He is none other than the famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, and after a little coaxing from Ackroyd's niece, he takes on the case and begins investigating the murder with the good doctor as his sidekick.

There are a whole household of intriguing suspects, each of which would benefit from Ackroyd's death and every one of them seems to be hiding something. In this book, as in the other Agatha Christie novels I've read, the strength lies in the balance between a great mystery (lots of clues, red herrings, and teasing hints) and a masterful sense of character and psychology. Truly a perfect mystery.

This is the first Hercule Poirot book that I've read, and although I've seen some TV adaptations of Poirot stories and had a general familiarity with his character I've been told by a friend that I would get even more out of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd if I had a little more Poirot under my belt. Which is great because I can't wait to read some more...

[And sadly I just have a boring old 1990s copy of this book and not the awesome 1920s cover pictured above. I would gladly trade for a cooler cover any day of the week.]

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)

Junot Díaz's The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) was not only a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, it also holds the prestigious honor of being the next DAFFODILS (that is the Dangerously Affable Friendly Friends Optional Drinking Invitational Literary Society) selection.

The book traces the story of Oscar de León, an overweight, science-fiction loving, Über-nerd, Dominican-American growing up in New Jersey, and his family -- particularly his older sister Lola, his mother Beli, and his grandfather Abelard. The family may be cursed, or it may just have the ordinary luck of Dominicans, our narrator, Yunior (a boyfriend to Lola and a sometimes-roommate to Oscar), isn't saying. Either way, bad things happen to them from generation to generation. And while Díaz starts us out in 1980s and 1990s New Jersey, we are quickly sent back to the Dominican Republic of the 1940s and 1950s where we and the family feel the wrath of dictator Rafael Trujillo.

I thought this was a really fun read, and I am a total sucker for multi-generational epics, so if you are too I would recommend checking this one out. My big criticism is that some of the "quirks" of the narrator and author (mostly the extensive footnotes and excessive sci-fi references) were applied inconsistently and sometimes got in the way of the story. Oddly enough all the characters are very engaging, complicated and well-drawn except for Oscar himself. I'm sure this was intentional, but I can't help wishing that the reader was able to slip under his armor a bit and get something more three-dimensional from the guy.

I have more to say, but I'm going to keep it under wraps until the book club meets.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

The wonders of Appleton

One of the most fun discoveries of our trip was this amazing house in Appleton, Wisconsin with a yard full of sculptures of famous artists. I couldn't find anything about it with a quick search of the internet, and I'd love to know more about the guy who makes these.

[And if that isn't enough for you, there is full photographic documentation of the trip here.]

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Dear Wisconsin

I miss you. It is 100 degrees outside right now in Austin, and it is eight o'clock in the evening. In addition, nothing is green here. I need to get myself one of those summer cabins up north....

More updates on the awesomeness that was Summer Road Trip 2009 after I recover from my car head and regain the will to carry on in my regular old life.