Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Good-bye, Chunky Rice by Craig Thompson (1999)

The always-excellent St. Murse recently loaned me two graphic novels by Craig Thompson. I figured I would read them in chronological order, which put the slim volume Good-bye, Chunky Rice (1999) in my hands.

I'm kind of a dilettante about it, but I really enjoy reading graphic novels when they find their way to me. Rarely, however, do I find that they really move me in the way that a novel moves me. Part of that is probably because I read them too fast, but I slowed down and took my time with Good-bye, Chunky Rice -- actually I read the whole thing twice -- and every page got right to me, half the time I couldn't stop giggling, and twice it made me cry.

This is the story of Chunky Rice, a turtle who decides he needs to leave his hometown, and his best lady friend, a sweet deer mouse, for unknown somethings far away. His roommate at a boarding house, gets him passage on his brother's boat. Chunky, the captain, a pair of Siamese twins, and a busty cook set off on their ocean voyage.

Thompson manages to make a book about a turtle, a mouse, abandonment, disappointment, sorrow, and goodbyes into a funny, enjoyable, and emotionally moving story that feels filled with characters from the reader's own life.

I can't wait to read Blankets...

Doot doot!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

No Place for Heroes by Laura Restrepo (2009)

I got a copy of No Place for Heroes by Laura Restrepo (2009, English translation 2010) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program awhile ago, but I had put off reading it because the description on the back was so dumb sounding. I figured the time had come for me to take my hits and, surprisingly, the book was pretty great!

Lorenza is a Columbian woman who joined the socialist party in Madrid as a young woman and then went to Buenos Aires to fight in the underground against the dictatorship in the late 1970s. She meets and moves in with a local leader of the movement, Ramón, and the two of them have a son, Mateo. When Mateo is a few years old, and after several close calls with the police, Lorenza and Ramón move to Columbia and cut off their ties with the movement. Lorenza throws herself into her work as a journalist, but Ramón is increasingly depressed and the two end up separating. When Ramón kidnaps Mateo in order to regain Lorenza's love and their former relationship, Lorenza is willing to sacrifice anything to get her son back.

Fast forwarding a dozen years or so, Lorenza and a teenage Mateo are back in Bueons Aires because Mateo wants to meet his father, a man he hasn't seen since he was three years old and hardly remembers. The city, now released from the dictatorship, brings back memories of her political youth and Lorenza spends hours telling Mateo stories of his father and their time together in the movement. Mateo, in typical teenager fashion, interrupts constantly, sometimes hungering for more stories of his father and other times getting frustrated with his mother and shutting her out. They find Ramón's number in the phone book, but Mateo can't get the courage up to call it. As they search for clues to Ramón's past, and Mateo tries to figure out why his father has never tried to look for him, Lorenza leads us back through the death of her father, she and Ramón's early life together, the excitement and terror of life under the dictatorship, and Mateo's kidnapping.

This is a nicely structured and well-written novel that managed to cover motherhood, teenagerness, social struggle, and past loves equally well. The descriptions of Buenos Aires are lovingly done without being oppressive, and it is no wonder that Restrepo can conjure these feelings and descriptions since much of Lorenza's history comes from Restrepo's own life. Definitely worth a read, especially if you are a fan of Latin American literature. Just don't judge this one by the back cover...

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2005)

For a book lover, I really am remarkably out of touch with what is going on in the book world. I almost never go into a bookstore that sells new books, most of my weird reading list (with the exception of my book club and my western canon project) comes from garage sales, thrift stores, or things that my nice friends lend me, and I don't read the New York Times Book Review or often even know if one of my favorite authors has come out with a new book. So, when I saw this copy of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova was a dollar at the library book sale, I decided to go for it. I'm an archivist, so I like historians, and I also like really long books and am not averse to small doses of vampirism. Little did I know (until, actually, a minute ago when I skimmed this insanely comprehensive Wikipedia article) that the rights to Kostova's debut novel earned her a $2 million paycheck, and that, thanks to a hefty advertising budget, this was the first debut novel to hit the New York Times bestsellers list in its first week of publication. And all thanks to a certain runaway bestseller called The Da Vinci Code that got publishers all hot about historical mystery/adventure books.

I haven't read The Da Vinci Code, but from what I've read about it, Kostova's novel has to be the better written of the two. This 650 page novel is told through a series of letters, diaries, remembered stories, folk songs, historical manuscripts, and journal articles. Our narrator, a middle-aged historian in the present day, pieces together the story of her teenage years in the mid-1970s, her father's grad school days in the 1950s, and her father's adviser's youthful research in the 1930s. All three characters become enmeshed in a never-ending cycle of obsessive research on Vlad Ţepeş aka Vlad the Impaler aka the historical Dracula, and in particular a desire to find the location of his grave. As historians, they naturally don't believe in superstitious notions like vampires, but after finding a very old bound volume containing nothing but blank pages with a woodcut of a dragon and the word Drakula in the center, their researcher brains take over. And they make rapid progress, quickly setting aside their real research projects, chasing down one lead after another, and traveling to distant countries to find another clue to the whereabouts of Dracula. And then: things start getting weird. They see an odd looking broad shouldered man following them. Their pets and friends start dying. People with bite marks on the side of their necks tell them that they should stop their research. And ultimately they are personally threatened by the big D. himself.

One by one our historians take the hint and stop researching Dracula. And one by one the next person in the chain discovers the book and picks up the research.

I was expecting to do a lot of cringing whenever the characters went to a library or an archives, because usually historical research in fictional books or movies is not portrayed very realistically. Kostova, on the other hand, gives us a book where historical research looks pretty familiar: no characters steal books or manuscripts from a repository; rare documents are treated with respect; the research takes a very very very long time, nothing is all in one repository, and plenty of documents just never made it into a collection at all. Big thumbs up on her research knowledge!

In the book the characters do a lot of traveling: from Oxford to Harvard, all around Eastern Europe, to France, Istanbul, Hungary, Bulgaria. The first 100 pages or so read more like a travel guide than a novel, and while it is clear that Kostova has really been to the places mentioned in the book, her descriptions of the sights and sounds of Europe are a little overblown and take away from the drive of the narrative. Once she gets going, however, the plot picks up and the last 100 pages are very exciting and bring us to a satisfying conclusion.

This isn't the best thing I've ever read (there is not a lot of variety in the characters' voices, it could use some tightening up, and sometimes her pacing is off), but is a fun read and the historical look at Vlad the Impaler, the fall of Byzantium, and the rise of the Ottoman empire is almost more exciting than the actual vampires. And there are some of those, including a character referred to as the "evil librarian."

If you want lots of sexy vampire action, this book is probably not for you, but if you have a little patience and a love for historiography, then it don't let its bestselling nature scare you away.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel (2006)

The always amazing A. recently lent me her copy of Alison Bechdel's graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), and I'm so so glad she did, because this is one I've been wanting to read for awhile. Bechdel is the author of the "Dykes to Watch Out For" comic strip, which is also excellent, and which really made me want to read this more personal work.

Fun Home is a memoir about Bechdel's childhood, coming of age, and her relationship with her father. Bechdel's coming out to her family in college was immediately followed by the news that her mother was leaving her father, and that her father was gay. A few weeks after that, at the age of 44, her father was dead after stepping in front of a bread truck while doing yard work. The evidence is inconclusive, but Bechdel believes that her father committed suicide and Fun Home, in part, looks back over her father's life and their time together and tries to come to terms with their past and his death.

Bechdel reveals this very personal story with a compelling sense of self-awareness and perspective. Events are presented and then revisited, background details highlight the difference between what the child and adult Bechdel see, and visuals of everyday scenes underlie the revealing and sometimes upsetting text.

Overall Fun Home really is a tragicomic -- a memoir filled with the comedy of adolescence and childhood memory, but washed over by the tragedy of her father's death. As soon as I finished it, I wanted to read the whole thing again and soak up more of the detailed drawings (which, incidentally, is exactly what A. said to me when she finished it). You should probably read this one.

[for a sense of Bechdel's amazing art work, check out the Google Books version.]

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Rough Guide to Barcelona by Jules Brown (2009)

Aside from a college trip to Mexico, I've never been out of the country, but international travel is something that I aspire to and I take a strange pleasure in reading about cities I've never been to, looking through street maps, and reading about hotels and restaurants and odd little neighborhoods. One city I could see myself exploring is Barcelona, so I got myself a used copy of The Rough Guide to Barcelona by Jules Brown (2009). I ordered it off Amazon and actually ended up with a UK version of the book that was withdrawn from a library in Edinburgh -- I'm not sure what it means when your travel guide has actually done more travel than you have.

Barcelona has several qualities that are important to me: It is on a coast; it has an interesting and long history; I can speak one of the languages (Spanish, not Catalan); cool architecture; good food. If I were to go, I think I'd like to spend three or four days in the city just wandering around and people watching and then do some side trips to cool things in the region.

Some things I would definitely want to see and do:

1. The Sagrada Familia and other Gaudí creations

2. Montjuïc (and I would naturally want to ride the funicular up there.)

3. Cable car across the harbor.

4. Old streets.

5. Beach stuff.

6. Exciting and big food markets.

And for some out of town excursions:

1. Montserrat

2. Girona

3. The Dalí museum in Figures

The Rough Guide series is a solid one, and although I haven't used this guide in the field, it seems to have plenty of useful information and easy to understand maps. Not a lot of pictures, but Google Image Search makes up for that.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Tinkers by Paul Harding (2009)

George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.

The latest selection for my book club (go DAFFODILS!) was Paul Harding's debut novel (and recent Pulitzer Prize winner) Tinkers (2009). The action of this book is the memories and thoughts of clock-repairer George Crosby as he lies, an old man, on his death bed and thinks back on his childhood in Maine and his epileptic father, Howard. The narrative is loose and the plot dreamlike, with point of view bouncing between George, Howard, and others, sometimes in the third person, and sometimes in the first. The language is often poetic with multiple clauses strung together, the punctuation mimicking the jumbled thoughts of a dying man. This book is literary, but not overly so, and its short length, beautiful language, and well-developed characters (who really come to life, even within the non-linear plot) should keep most readers engaged. Me: I loved it.

As might be expected, this poetic and not-action-packed slim novel was not gulped up by the big publishing houses when they saw it, and ended up being published by a small independent press. The story of how the book was written, published, found its audience and eventually won the Pulitzer is a great one, and should be required reading for all "unmarketable" artists.

And now, because the language in the book is too lovely to leave on the page, and because this is my blog and I can do what I want, please indulge me in another quotation:

He thought, buy the pendant, sneak it into your hand from the folds of your dress and let the low light of the fire lap at it late at night as you wait for the roof to give out or your will to snap and the ice to be too thick to chop through with the ax as you stand in your husband's boots on the frozen lake at midnight, the dry hack of the blade on ice so tiny under the wheeling and frozen stars, the soundproof lid of heaven, that your husband would never stir from his sleep in the cabin across the ice, would never hear and come running, half-frozen, in only his union suit, to save you from chopping a hole in the ice and sliding into it as if it were a blue vein, sliding down into the black, silty bottom of the lake, where you would see nothing, would perhaps feel only the stir of some somnolent fish in the murk as the plunge of you in your wool dress and the big boots disturbed it from its sluggish winter dreams of ancient seas. Maybe you would not even feel that, as you struggled in clothes that felt like cooling tar, and as you slowed calmed, even, and opened your eyes and looked for a pulse of silver, an imbrication of scales, and as you closed your eyes again and felt their lids turn to slippery, ichthyic skin, the blood behind them suddenly cold, and as you found yourself not caring, wanting, finally, to rest, finally wanting nothing more than the sudden, new, simple hum threading between your eyes. The ice is far too thick to chop through. You will never do it. You could never do it. So buy the gold, warm it with your skin, slip it onto your lap when you are sitting by the fire and all you will otherwise have to look at is your splintery husband gumming chew or the craquelure of your own chapped hands.

"An imbrication of scales" = awesome.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Master of Murder by Christopher Pike (1992)

You may have heard of a certain bestselling author of young adult thrillers who goes by the name of Christopher Pike. That is, of course, a pseudonym, and little is known about Pike who keeps his private life very private and never does publicity or publishes author photos.

This might remind you of a character in Pike's 1992 novel Master of Murder: Marvin Summer is a 17-year-old high school student. But he is also the author of the Mack Slate novels -- a bestselling series of young adult thrillers which he writes under a pseudonym -- and no one in his town, not even his parents, suspects a thing. The reason he is still in high school and not living the high life with his millions of dollars is that both his parents are alcoholics and he is afraid that his dad will take all his money if he finds out how rich he is before his 18th birthday. This, of course, makes perfect sense.

Marvin may be a successful author and rich young man, but he has not been lucky in love. His relationship with the girl of his dreams, Shelly, was cut short when another boy she was seeing, Harry was found dead in the lake outside of town a year ago. Everyone says he committed suicide, but Shelly is sure he was murdered, and she wants Marvin to find out who did it. Meanwhile, Marvin has gotten a series of letters in his PO Box from someone who knows who he is, and that are postmarked from his hometown (this is not really a surprise since his fan mail is forwarded to "Mack Slate" at that address since his agent doesn't know his real name).

There are some definite rocky patches in this one, and the reader has to suspend quite a bit of disbelief, but overall the book is a fun read, and Pike seems to be having fun writing about writing. In fact, he even seems to understand his own overemphasis on descriptions of his character's hair:

Shelly had hair and she had skin -- both lovely. (p.3)

The book also features a character named Triad, which is possibly the best high school football jock name I have ever heard.

[And if you don't want to read the book, but want all the plot details, check out the nice summary here.]