June 05, 2009

Oracle Night :: Paul Auster

Title: Oracle Night
Author: Paul Auster
Read: May 2009; Madrid
Format: kindle

Oracle Night is yet another one of Auster's lonely-writer, nested-narrative novels.

Suffering from an undetermined illness and recovering from a recent episode, Sidney Orr returns to writing. In his convalescence, he had been filling his days with mundane activities: lunch, errands, etc. However, one day he visits a mysterious stationery store in his Brooklyn neighborhood. There, he purchases a mystical, Portuguese notebook and begins to write after a long drought. The story that Sidney begins to write is complicated and I don't care to recall it. Just know that it begins as an exercise, but then the writing pours out of him and what he creates becomes fuller and darker.

Like much of Auster's writing, Oracle Night concerns itself with the process of writing and the relationship between writer, life, and work.

Auster, to me, is a go-to author when you want to read something substantive, but you don't want to commit a lot of time to it. He's brilliant with mood and meaning; through this he's able to construct layers that are readable and suspenseful, but also challenging. We come to expect this from the author, but Oracle Night took it a little too far, I think. Maybe one layer too many? Maybe we could have dialed back the alienation a bit? Though, maybe that was me. I read this while traveling alone in a foreign city.

Anyway, it was an interesting read. And since it's not much of a time commitment, it's worth picking up. But don't be shocked if you find yourself on the verge of an eye-roll every once in a while.

Captivating and well-paced, with a healthy dose of mystery.
3 out of 5 stars

June 03, 2009

the no. 1 ladies' detective agency :: alexander mccall smith

Title: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Author: Alexander McCall Smith

Publisher: Anchor

Read: June 2009; Madrid, MAD>JFK

Format: Kindle

In sum: The Botswana backdrop and its lively inhabitants are given their first chance to charm you in the pilot of McCall-Smith’s popular mystery series.

I understand why people have latched onto this series. Sort of. The #1 Lady herself, Precious Ramotswe, is a wonderful character, full of sensitivity, warmth and courage. She's experienced loss, heartbreak and abuse. But she not only makes the best of her situation, but is even brave enough to take the risk of opening a Ladies' Detective Agency, her longtime dream.

While business is slow at first, her first cases do allow McCall-Smith to set the geographic and cultural landscape of Mma Ramotswe's Botswana. The mysteries center around adultery, religious zeal, Southern African life, fraud and child abuse. But, the heaviness of these topics is far from dwelled upon. Instead, more time and pages are devoted to painting the scene of Gaborone, telling Prcious' history and developing her lovely and memorable companions. Specifically, her skillful. rigid and hilarious secretary Mma Makutsi breathes incredible life to every scene she is in. Also, the adorable, doting Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni warms the page, even when he doesn't bring excitement.

Great characters and setting aside, I felt the pace of this first installment to be a little too slow for my tastes. What I remember most of the novel is wanting more to happen or, rather, for it to move more quickly. I know it's a little unfair to enjoy the effect of the author's descriptive writing but find its telling tedious, but that's just how it is.

Also unfair: For me, it was hard to observe the Death of This Author and, frankly, I felt funny about this older white man writing in with sing-songy, cartoonish cadence for this Botswanan woman. The whole thing left a vaguely colonialist taste in my mouth, which I recognize to be wholly undeserved, untrue and unfair. Yes, I know he is African. It still felt funny, though.

Sweet. But slow:
2.5 out of 5 stars*

*I keep going back and forth between 2.5 and 3 for this one. The deciding factor? I've had the second book loaded up on my Kindle for months and have not at all been tempted to read it.