Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Buried Giant

So, you get a gift.  The giver is someone who can always surprise you with his unique style.  As you turn the object over in your hands you can clearly tell it is something that was finely crafted and is somehow both sturdy and delicately wrought.  But…”What is it?  What does it do?” you ask.  “Well, see, you turn this lever and twist it here and pop that open and hold it like this.”  “Oh.  Yes.  It’s lovely, beautiful even.  But…which is it…is it a can opener or is it a flashlight?”  There is a small pause before he replies, “Exactly!!”
So how shall I describe The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro?  Notwithstanding that it is populated with ogres, pixies and a dragon, I wouldn’t call it a fantasy like The Hobbit.  And although it is set in sixth or seventh century England, a time following the collapse of the Roman Empire when medieval Europe was experiencing economic and cultural decline – and there is talk of lingering hostility between the Britons and the Saxons following the bloody war years - it certainly is not historical fiction.  You may think that because Sir Gawain, the nephew of the now-dead but legendary King Arthur, enters the picture as an old and tottering knight on a mission of his own that the novel should be classified as a myth…or perhaps an allegory.  The only thing I can say about its genre with any certainty is this:  The Buried Giant is odd.
The main characters are Britons Axl and Beatrice, an elderly married couple who live in a warren cut into a hillside.  Their neighbors have taken away their only candle for fear they are too old to be trusted not to start a fire by some careless act of neglect.  Beatrice resents this and refuses to resign herself to living in the dark.  It is a time when the land is covered in a dense and unyielding mist that clouds everything, including memory and all thoughts of the past.  In a momentary break in her own fog, Beatrice suddenly remembers that Axl and she have a grown son living in another village which might be reached within a few days walk.  She convinces her husband that they should leave the place of darkness and go to find their son.  Despite their age and infirmity, and although they realize the journey will be dangerous, they set out to do just that.   But danger can come in many shapes and forms; it can come from without as well as from within.  Sometimes it comes with remembering the past.
The landscape of this novel is more than figuratively desolate and at times it is overwhelmingly atmospheric and as weighty as a Delta summer.  But there are also moments of comic relief, kindness, and devotion.  That Axl and Beatrice love each other is reinforced for the reader with astonishingly simple grace:  "Are you still there, Axl?"  "I'm still here, Princess."  
If, as I did, you loved The Remains Of The Day or Never Let Me Go and you expect this newest novel to be similar in some way to either, you should prepare yourself to be disappointed.  To approach this book with any such expectation is to do it an injustice; it is maddeningly unique.  To be honest, at times I asked myself, “What am I reading here…and why?”  If  Don Quixote married The Wizard of Oz and begot Morte d’Arthur, would The Buried Giant be a second cousin once removed?   The answer came back,  Ishiguro is, after all, Ishiguro.  .  Masterful writing rests within the hands of the masterful writer.  No surprise there.  Truthfully, I am currently unable to grab hold of what makes this book so mesmerizing.  Perhaps I lack the mental muscle to properly dissect it.  Not on the first go-round in any event.

I would be hard-pressed to rate this book with “stars.”  It is so multi-layered it demands re-reading to get to the core…the sweet nutmeat…the “aha” kernel.  Did I love it?  Did I like it?  My opinion should not matter.  My advice to those of you who are determined to press onward through the labyrinth (and I do recommend as much):  relinquish your preconceptions, open your imagination, and stay buckled in.  The roads are rough, bumpy and will chill a person.  You may get bitten by a memory - which can fester or leave a scar.  Or overcome by the past as it rushes towards you and makes you wobbly, dazed and uncertain.  You may get lost in the mist that clings to every branch and bog.  But if you make it through, you will know what I've been trying to tell you...and further explanation will not be required.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Shadow Of The Wind

Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day – The Shadow of The Wind by Carlos Luis Zafon

            When was the last time you were completely and utterly lost in a book?  A time when you came to the end, closed the cover, and emerged glassy-eyed and waiting to regain your bearings, reluctant to return to the real world.  I think, perhaps, it happens more often in childhood than adulthood.  You remember those summer afternoons being transported to Oz or falling down the rabbit hole or being yanked back to earth from the Land of Mordor only because your mother is calling you to supper, don’t you.  You do if you loved to read as a child.  Every now and again, however, it can happen when you’re old enough to know that magic isn’t real, that it’s all in the flick of the wrist.  But every once in a while you’ll pick up a book, begin to read, and realize – notwithstanding all your years of living - that there are all kinds of magic in which to believe.

            It is the summer of 1945.  Daniel Sempere’s father, the owner of a shop that specializes in antiquarian books, wakes him just before dawn and tells him to get dressed.  “I want to show you something,” he says.  Daniel follows his father through the narrow, hazy lanes of Barcelona until they stop in front of a large door of carved wood, blackened by time and humidity – the entrance to what resembles a crumbling palace.  “Daniel,” his father cautions, “you mustn’t tell anyone what you’re about to see today.” The door is opened by a man whom his father greets with familiarity.  “Good morning, Isaac.  This is my son, Daniel.”   Inside Daniel is stunned by what he sees:  labyrinths of passageways and corridors and halls, crammed from floor to soaring ceiling with bookshelves full of books.  “Welcome to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Daniel,” his father winks.

            His father explains that they have entered a place of mystery.  That every book within the walls has a soul.  The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read and lived with it and dreamed with it.  “Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.”   A book that is forgotten – whether it be from the closing of a bookstore, the disappearance of a library, or simply consigned to oblivion – those who know of and guard this sanctuary make certain it comes here to live, waiting for the day when it will reach a new reader’s hands.

 Daniel’s father explains that according to tradition, the first time someone visits the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, he (or she) must choose a book and adopt it, making sure that it will never disappear and that it will always stay alive.  “It is a very important promise.  For life.”  On this day it was to be Daniel’s turn.

            As he roamed through the galleries of that seemingly boundless universe, his eyes spotted the book that he knew he would chose – or which, more precisely, had chosen him.  The gold letters of the title gleamed from the light peeking in from the glass domed ceiling. 

The Shadow Of The Wind
Julian Carax

            Taking it home with him, Daniel not only gets lost in the book, he becomes curious about its author – whose works, he learns, are being systematically hunted down and destroyed by someone unknown.  In his passion to discover who and why, he begins to unravel an amazing story of mystery, murder, and near madness, with shadowy plots and subplots and with enough ghostly gothic film noir essence, nail biting thrills, dangers lurking with every creaking floorboard, and both the nobility of the human spirit and its evil twin to keep the pages turning furiously.  I promise you, it’s pure literary seduction to which you will gladly succumb.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bel Canto

I do a fair amount of work-related driving.  This week even more so as I anticipated spending over two hours a day traveling to and from South Carolina.  Normally, the idea of getting into the car and driving around town without an audio book does not make me break out in a cold sweat.  But long-distance driving is quite another matter, so I figured it would be a very good time to "read" Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, which is something I've been meaning to do ever since I finished State of Wonder.

I am currently on disc 5 of 9, which brings me a little more than half-way through, and I like the story line quite a bit.  World famous opera soprano, Roxane Coss, is engaged to sing at the palatial home of the vice-president of an unnamed South American country following a dinner party to celebrate the birthday of the chairman of a large Japanese electronics company.  The party is attended by rollers and shakers of industry and politically powerful personages.  The president of the unidentified country is supposed to be in attendance as well; however, the party falls on the evening his favorite soap opera is scheduled to reach its denouement.  He sends his regrets at the last minute.  Meanwhile, a terrorist organization has composed a plot to break into the house at the height of the festivities and kidnap the president.  The break-in is successful, but for obvious reasons the kidnapping is a bust. The terrorists take everyone who is in attendance hostage instead.

That is about all of the plot line I'm going to reveal, except to say a lot of the book is character study and is very well written - at least as far as I have come in the book.  Let's tally this up so far:  Plot line:  Very good; Writing:  Excellent; Character development:  Insightful.  So why am I not loving this book?  Narration.  Narration, dear readers, can kill a good book quite dead.

Because the aforementioned gala event is attended by multi-national glitterati, there are a lot of foreign accents to be heard among the crowd.  That's okay when the reader is reading inside the reader's head.  The mind sort of fills in the blanks without much notice.  But in narration?  Well, let's say in this particular instance it goes something like this:

Russian guest (predicable low voice):  "OH-prra eez wary eemporrtahnt een my cowntry."
Spanish guest:  (higher voice) "Eees eet polithicul or-r-r museeecul? Joo cahn nevahrrrr thell."
Japanese guest (halting sotto voce):  Well, there's just no way to type it, but it reminds me of Ming the Merciless in the old Flash Gordon television series.

It's a shame, really, to subject an otherwise very worthwhile book to linguistic torture.  And it is only because it is very worthwhile that I will soldier on until the end.  My advice to actors who wish to pursue a career in the book-reading biz is to ditch the phony accents.  Because unless you're David Suchet or Meryl Streep, it seldom works and you will only accomplish ruining the experience for the poor reader who, like me, is trapped inside their car contending with foul weather, traffic jams and road construction.  Is it too much to ask that you simply read the words?

As the Russian said, shaking his head, "Eees so wary froostrrating."  I hear you, pal.  I feel the same way.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

In my earliest memory of...well, anything, I am 3-1/2 years old and standing next to my mother in the dining room one early, gray winter morning.  We lived in a brownstone two-flat on Lawndale Avenue in Chicago which my parents bought after the war.  It was 1951 and the dining room was cozily heated by a wood-burning stove.  She was holding a brightly colored book-order form that my sister had carried home from school.  My sister made her selections, then my mother turned to me and said I could chose one book as well.  I still remember the thrill of excitement, looking at the pictures of the book covers.  I chose The Tall Book of Make-Believe illustrated by Garth Williams.  Over fifty years later, when I was forced to evacuate my home outside Savannah, a hurricane bearing down on us, the only possession I took with me was that book. That battered, bent, raggedy-paged book.  That book which traveled with me to college, and to Europe, and to Hawaii, and eventually to an island along Georgia's coast.  In a world of possessions, it was what I could not lose.  On that cold winter morning in 1951 I was not yet a reader; but it was the moment I became a book lover.  Over the intervening years I have read many fine books, great ones, masterpieces written by gifted authors.  And yet, The Tall Book of Make-Believe remains the most important and influential book I have ever held in my hands.  For those of you who have seen Citizen Kane, it is my "Rosebud."

When I was roughly 8 years old, my parents moved us from the city to the suburbs.  The library was 7 blocks away, an easy bike ride over what were still very urban streets.  It was housed in a corner store front building; the librarian sat at a heavy oak desk to the right of the front door.  I would head directly to "my section" which was located in the back, right-hand side of the room - second row from the end.  It was from this library that I borrowed my first chapter book, The Wizard of Oz.  It was bound in an appropriately green cover, sprinkled with small yellow fleur de lis.  I wish I could find one just like it.  And then, after carrying my stack of books quietly to the desk, the librarian would hand me a pencil so I could print my name on the little pocket card.  She would pound the date stamp on the pad and "plunk" it onto the return slip glued to the inside cover.  I would pedal home, books in the basket of my bike.

As Lewis Buzbee writes in The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, his very readable book about books, printing them, selling them, lusting over them,  "[t]ake someone who likes to read; give her a comfy place to do so and ample time for doing it; add one good book, and then more; stand back."  As all book-lusters know to be true, we are "drawn to the bookstore by the books that moved us, and stopping for just a moment, we stayed for a long time."
A book, as Buzbee points out, "is a uniquely durable object, one that can be fully enjoyed without being damaged.  A book doesn't require fuel, food, or service; it isn't very messy and rarely makes noise.  A book can be read over and over, then passed on to friends, or resold at a garage sale.  A book will not crash or freeze and will still work when filled with sand.  Even if it falls into the bath, it can be dried out, ironed if necessary and then finished.  Should the spine of a book crack so badly the pages fall out, one simply has to gather them before the wind blows them away and wrap with a rubber band."

It is clear that Lewis Buzbee loves the physical book, the printed version, the real McCoy.  When first published in 2006, this little volume expressed his concern that ebooks and Internet booksellers might signal the end of the bookstore and the book-book.  However, as proof of the resiliency of the printed book he asks us to take a simple test:  "Look around on the streetcar or bus or airplane and count how many e-readers you see.  None.  We still prefer that quiet rustle of the pages, and besides, how do you press a wildflower into the pages of an e-book?"  Fast-forward to 2015, however, and it's easy to see things have changed.  Not everyone among the general readership desires the "quiet sensuality" of the printed book.  In his 2008 Afterword, he admits there's no doubt about it - it's a bad time to be a bookseller.

Yes, I loved this little volume.  What book-luster would not?  Who among us hasn't, on occasion, become a "book snoop," straining to make out what that person sitting across from you on the train is reading?  Loving how the unique smell of the bookstore wafts over you as soon as you enter.  Being alone among others?  Who hasn't stopped in a bookstore for "just a moment" and stayed a long time? I have no idea whether the bookstore or the printed book will survive as technology presses on.  Or whether a young reader in the next millennium will find the same satisfaction in flipping electronic pages as I did reading under the covers with a flashlight, or peddling home, basket heavy with Nancy Drew or Heidi or that silly Mrs. Goose And Her Friends.  Or printing my name on the flyleaf.  This book belongs to ME.

But one thing will always be true:  When one opens the covers of a book, the universe unfurls itself.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Rhapsody In Blue(s)

My latest book order came!  I had not realized I color coded my choices.  Was it a trend?  Had I been doing this subconsciously for a while?  Impossible!  Preposterous!  So, I checked.  The month before I walked out of the bookstore with The Crystal Cave and The Sun Also Rises tucked under an arm.

The Sun Also Rises
The Crystal Cave (Arthurian Saga, #1)

and then there was the book order comprised of:

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette

The proof, as they say, is in the cover art.  I have no idea how long this has been going on.  Is it a sign of something deeper, more psychological, than the lure of a color wheel?  Wouldn't it be fun to take all the books one owns and line them up by hue?  Just to see how it looked?  Discover your primary palette for prose!  Define your literary pigment.  Achieve the ultimate crayolafication of your reading life!  Are you a tranquil blue, a dignified gray, a tender pink?  Or perhaps you are:

The Camerons


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

And The Winner Is...

Whoosh.  Did you feel that?  Another year zooms on down the road leaving some of us wondering what the heck just happened.  Am I richer?  Thinner?  Fitter?  Or perhaps a combination of thinner and fitter which I will call "thitter."  Do I see a more peaceful world?  A cleaner one?  Have I been kinder, or have I at least tried?  I suppose it's inevitable that at the close of each year one can't resist the urge to take inventory and tally up the balance sheets of life.  I don't particularly like the exercise and generally avoid it...with one exception!  The books I've read.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, is not only the best book of fiction I read in 2014, it is the best book I've read this year.  No, that's too limited.  It is the best book I've read in many years. I would not be surprised if I learn someone plans to make a "major motion picture" based on it.  Just, please, whoever you are...please do it justice.

Last October I had a bunch of coupons for Barnes and Noble for 20% off that were set to expire.  Since I also have a membership, I get an additional discount plus free shipping when I order books on-line.  The rationale I use is thus:  with a coupon and extra discounts, one is not spending money one is saving money.  Using this rationale, I had a great time saving tons of money by clicking, and entering coupon codes, and applying discounts.  When the books began arriving it was actually better than Christmas surprises.  You might know that feeling:  "Oh, I forgot I ordered that.  How wonderful."

One of those books turned out to be the best book of non-fiction I read in 2014.  In The Heart Of The Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick is based on the 1820 voyage of the whaling ship Essex out of Nantucket, which was rammed by a sperm whale (apparently in a deliberate event unheard of at the time) and sunk near the Equator in the South Pacific Ocean.  Twenty survivors packed into three small boats with little food, water or navigational equipment.  Only a handful made it home.  I was half-way through the book when I noticed for the first time that it was not only a New York Times Bestseller (something I don't follow) but the cover also announced that it is "soon to be a Major Motion Picture."  After a little checking, I see it is due to be released in a few months.   As a side-bar, if you didn't already know that the whaling industry had terrible consequences for the survival of the species, that and other acts of environmental malfeasance will probably make you sad and angry. Nevertheless, this is a whopping good story.

I read several excellent mysteries this year.  I especially loved The Tiger In The Smoke, an oldie by Margery Allingham, which had me turning pages like crazy.  It was all you hope a murder mystery will be. But, I'll have to give the award to The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley.  Not gripping, not spine-tingling, but well-written and my sentimental favorite since I find Flavia de Luce to be the most refreshing and precocious chemist/sleuth of all time.  Besides, this is the volume in which her long-lost mother, Harriet, comes home.  I had heard it was supposedly the last, but I'm delighted that number 7 will be out next week.  Have I pre-ordered As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust?  You bet.

Although it was not published in 2014, I only got around to reading Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel this year and it gets the award for best historical fiction.  My only criticism of it was I wish it had been longer.  I wasn't prepared to reach the end.  It was that good.

Things That Matter by Charles Krauthammer is a collection of essays and articles written in his brilliant, witty, and insightful style.  Known mainly for his political commentary, Krauthammer is also a psychiatrist which I think gives him a special gravitas in his analysis of people and why they do the things they do.  There is some politics, but he writes so well on a number of subjects:  baseball, dogs, speed chess.  Even if you do not agree with him ideologically, I will bet you will like the guy after reading this book.

I can't remember how I learned about I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. The cover art is awful, so I know it isn't what grabbed me.  I'm happy something did.  The story line, the tight writing, the contemporary subject matter all worked together to create a real edge-of-your-seat thriller.  I was going to loan it to a friend, but am too afraid it won't come back to me.  I don't want to part with it.  I can see a movie on the horizon for this one and would bet money someone has already bought the rights.

The most delightfully fun read was Where'd You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple.  I wanted fearlessly quirky, highly intelligent, but somewhat blundering Bernadette Fox to be my friend.  This was an audio book for me and the narrator's voice was perfect.  The wrong voice will ruin it every time.

I read one YA book this year (something I rarely do) but had heard so much about The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier that I figured, "Why not?"  Now that I've read it, if I was twelve or thirteen again, I would check under the bed every night and sleep with the light on, and dead leaves blowing about the house would make me run in a panic.

There were so many good books this year, I hate to pick favorites.  But these really did stand out and I can recommend each and every one of them.

So bring on 2015.  I can hardly wait.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Go Ahead: Challenge Me

The end of the year is breathing down my neck and I find myself glancing over my shoulder at the wreckage of broken resolutions, failed goals and challenges that remain unchallenged.  But I remain hopeful and ready to begin afresh.  Yes, Scarlett O'Hara, you are correct.  There's always tomorrow - or next year (at least one hopes). In six weeks I'll start again to think about painting the hallway, scraping the ceilings, planting a vegetable garden, and getting up an hour before dawn to exercise.  What I will not do is burden myself with a reading challenge on Goodreads.  Or rather, I will not make a blood oath with myself to read a book or two a week.  I will admit the Goodreads challenge is fulfilling in the same sort of way my 401k statement is fulfilling.  As I finish a book and hang a few stars on it, it gets saved in my little "Books Read" bank account.  And as the year wanes, a bibliophile takes pleasure in looking back over the year via the book covers that get lined up.  Or realizing that book was read last year, not this year.  Last year? I could have sworn I read it this year.  Or even more stunning when it happens to me..."I read that book?  I wonder what it was about?"

So, let's say you've set yourself a goal of 52 books in the year.  That's a book a week.  That's doable - especially if you listen to an audio book while driving or during that pre-dawn jogging you mean to accomplish.  Ah...But are we talking about reading The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson or Natchez Burning by Greg Iles?  One could read the Jackson book four times before finishing the Iles.  Or perhaps three Penelope Fitzgerald novels and The Stranger by Albert Camus.  Do I really want to pick up George Eliot's Middlemarch when, at 900 pages, Goodreads will gently remind me that I'm "6 books behind schedule," which may therefore compel me to reach for a graphic novel - just to catch up rather than because I want to read it - all because being behind schedule is anathema to me?  Being behind?  Not making the grade? What - shall I lose the challenge just because I choose to cart around a tome?  It isn't that I don't want to read Camus.  I love Camus; Camus is brief and he is brilliant.  But I also love Victor Hugo and might want to re-read Les Miserables.  

Challenges are fine; they can be invigorating and self-affirming.  And they have their place.  I'm just not sold that a book challenge based solely on numbers is the right place for me to be.  I suppose you can argue that such a challenge encourages people to read more.  But let's face it.  A person who signs up for a reading challenge is probably already someone who reads without any prompting.  Goodreads is, after all, a place for readers.

I will still sign up for the 2015 Challenge when the time comes, but I'll challenge myself to something stress free - 12 books for the year perhaps.  I can still look at my "books read" bank and feel a smug satisfaction with myself as the covers start to add up.

Before the end of the year I would like to finish my little TBR pile which consists of The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, and Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester.  I will most certainly finish the very delightful audio book Where'd You Go Bernadette, by Maria Semple but gave up on Among Others by Jo Walton narrated by...I can't remember.  The story was just fine but I could not take that voice for 8 more hours.  Just...could...not.

And, if I do not finish any of them, that will be okay too.  Because there's always tomorrow.  And as we all know, tomorrow is another day.