August 18, 2009

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time :: mark haddon

Title: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Author: Mark Haddon
Publisher: VIntage, 2003
Read: August 2009; JFK>SFO, San Francisco

Format: trade paperback

Nutshell: Christopher Boone is a 15 year old math prodigy with what appears to be Asperger Syndrome or some form of high-functioning autism or something (though his condition is never explicitly defined). Wandering around in the middle of the night - as he sometimes does - he finds his neighbor's dog killed, via pitchfork. He takes it upon himself to investigate and document the case. While doing so, he uncovers a deep secret that upsets his well-ordered world, driving him to run away. By surviving the ensuing misadventures, some terrifying to him, his confidence grows. As do his hopes for the future.

I picked this up at the used book store down the street for $4 and read most of it in the last third of a plane ride to San Francisco. I think that if I had sunk any more resources than that into reading it, I would feel slightly ripped off. It's not that the book is bad. Not by any means. In fact, it's engaging and quirky in a pleasant way. Cute even. It's just neither compelling, informative nor beautiful. And, really, these are the qualities I want in the books I read.

The author does take an admirable risk by writing Christopher in the first-person. It's well executed and the effect is never cartoonish or offensive. Actually, it aids in rounding out the character: you sympathize with and never pity him - a too common pitfall in books with mentally challenged characters.

In the end, though, the story is kind of predictable. And the writing, though light and amusing, is pretty much just okay. If the The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time lands in front of you and you happen to have a couple of hours to kill, I say why not. You're unlikely to regret it. I just wouldn't necessarily rush to the library for this one.

Sweet, quirky, but not super memorable:
3 out of 5 stars

what i loved :: siri hustvedt

Title: What I Loved

Author: Siri Hustvedt

Publisher: Picador, 2004

Read: August 2009; NYC

Format: mass market paperback

1 Minute Summary: Before losing his vision completely, art history professor and narrator Leo Hertzberg sets out to record the last 25 years of his life. His reverie begins in 1975 when he meets and befriends rising artist Bill Weschler. What follows is Leo’s account of their friendship and the convergence of their lives: an exploration of their marriages, children and the challenges that shape both of their families.

At fewer than 400 pages, a sprawling plot and rich subtext make
What I Loved pretty dense - especially for a contemporary novel. It's kept simple enough through its organization, though: the story is told in flashback format - but chronologically - and is organized into three distinct parts.

Part one is heartiest in both plot and message. Here, the foundation is set in detail: the two men meet, their wives are introduced, friendship grows between the couples, each has a child and we follow the progress of both families until tragedy strikes. It's also in part one - from before the children are born until they are very young - that we are shown the main characters most consumed by their academic and artistic pursuits. Through descriptions of the couples’ works and conversations, we are exposed to their world views. To be totally honest, I got a little nervous at these frequent philosophical-waxings. I felt it teetered a little too close to pretentious at times and I was afraid I'd find the characters irredeemably insufferable if it didn't ease up.

Thankfully, it did. The characters' focal points soon moved from their own careers/output to their new families, and so went the focus of the text. Where Hustvedt initially appears sort of heavy handed in demonstrating the intellectualism of the couples (and of that particular time in New York City), it becomes clear that she's just laying the groundwork for the artful development of her story.

Part two deals with the fallout of a tragedy (pardon the vagueness - no spoilers!). The reactions in this section echo the characters' philosophical deliberations from part one. We see how their individual beliefs inform their internal experiences of sorrow, but we also witness their earnest grief in action. This section is largely concerned with sadness and what distance and time can do to affect one's experience of pain. Very little 'happens' in part two and yet it's riveting nonetheless, highlighting the effectiveness of Hustvedt's graceful and feeling prose.

The third part is markedly different from the rest of the book. The primary concern of this more plot-driven, sometimes caper-like, section are the sociopathic, compulsive actions of one of the sons and the adults' evolving reactions to them. The plot unfolds quickly while below the surface we examine how biological, physical and emotional closeness as well as loyalty and familial love are challenged when those very ties are abused. It’s heart-wrenching to see the disintegration of relationships that seemed, until this point, so unwavering.

As a whole, the novel seems focused on perspectives. In particular, it examines how perceptions and perspectives are set and how they can change over time, space and, as one character puts it, how “mixed up” or enmeshed everything and everyone is. When faced with the various events of their lives, our characters are forced to re/consider their loyalties, the way they love and the way they hurt.

As a reader, I felt challenged by the characters' contemplations. More than once, I had to take a break from the text to think about what I'd just read. This isn't something I find myself doing very often. Or ever, really.
The novel is just that affecting. It's taken me a while even just to write this stupid report.

on so many levels, the added bonus is that the writing is not just beautiful, but often lyrical. Yes, the overall mood is on the somber side, but even when it is at its most elegiac, the words ooze sincerity and intense emotion. Adding, of course, to the book's overall effect.

A beautiful, haunting novel that weighs heavily after reading:
4.5 out of 5 stars

August 12, 2009

the girl who played with fire :: stieg larsson

Title: The Girl Who Played with Fire
Author: Stieg Larsson
Publisher: Knopf, 2009
Read: August 2009; NYC

Format: Kindle

In This One: We reconnect with Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist over a year after the Vanger investigation and Wennerstrom Affair (of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – see earlier post). Blomkvist is back at the publishing helm of his Millennium magazine, which soon plans to release a book and special issue on sex trafficking. One night, Mikael finds the writers of the book and article – a couple – murdered in their apartment; a gun with Lisbeth’s finger prints on it is found at the scene. On the other side of town, on the same night, Salander’s court-appointed guardian is also discovered murdered. The police investigation soon focuses on Lisbeth as its prime suspect. Though Lisbeth has cut Blomkvist out of her life, they work separately - but together - to unearth the truth about the killings.

Top Observations and Thoughts

1. Like TGWTDT, there is sometimes too much detail and time spent on trivialities (e.g., a list of every ikea item Salander furnishes her posh new apartment with and exactly how much she spent at the store)

2. The villains are awesomely scary. There are many and each presents a different kind of deviousness, ranging from the seemingly physically-invincible giant to the various sinister tormentors, unjustly in positions of authority.

3. I think it would be helpful to know more about the geographic layout of Sweden. As characters dash from location to location, it would be useful to know how long it should take to get from setting A to setting B. Especially at the end, the book is intensely suspenseful on every page. Knowing these details could maybe have taken the edge off.

4. A lot goes on in this book. There is a ton of action and several different storylines, most of which converge. Yet, there are also some seemingly purposeless threads. Why? Maybe it’s because the books are in a series and they're meant to be significant later?

5. Larsson offers a delicious plenty of red herrings. I'm easily duped, but there are so many evil characters you never know which one is ultimately to blame. Until the end of course.

6. Even though the characters are the same, TGWPWF avoids becoming a formulaic series. This book is a different type of suspense novel than his last: you know who (prob) did it, but we wait to find out the interconnectedness of all the evil men. The effect is equally riveting--maybe even more so--as the straightforward suspense in TGWTDT.

7. I appreciate that the almost wholly plot-driven novel adds in a little layer of complexity through its anti-misogynist subtext.

This book is awesome. I don’t read a lot of suspense, but having bought into the ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ phenomenon, I eagerly attacked this book as soon as it was released in the US. My expectations were high—I really liked the first book and had heard that the follow up was even better. It totally was.

The pageturneriest page turner I’ve ever read.

5 out of 5 stars

August 07, 2009

the guernsey literary and potato peel pie society :: mary ann shafer, annie burrows

Title: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Author: Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Burrows

Publisher: Dial Press, 2009
Read: August 2009; NYC

Format: trade paperback

What Happens: Juliet Ashton both writes and receives a lot of letters.

In them, we learn that World War II has just ended and that recently-occupied Europe is starting to pick up the pieces. Juliet’s popular newspaper column ends along with the war and she, too, is trying to figure out what’s next.

She soon receives a letter from a member of a ‘Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ on Guernsey, a small island in the English Channel. Her curiosity about the club and its members eventually prompts her to visit. There, she meets lively characters, learns of the war's effect on the islands and eventually discovers how she wants to spend the next chapter of her life.

Okay: So, beyond my humble opinion that it’s good, there’s not a lot to say about this one. It’s not super deep, heart-wrenching or anything like that. I found it really satisfying and entertaining, nonetheless. Its strengths, I suppose, lie in the characters and plot execution.

It’s important to note that almost every letter is either written to or by Juliet, the center of the epistolary novel's flurry. In her early letters, she sometimes comes off as flippant and maybe even a bit spoiled. Sure, we see that she is witty and clever, but wonder - if just initially - whether, in her, these will be good or bad traits. Thankfully, as we continue to read her letters, her character fills out: Yes, she can be glib, but she is also sensitive, caring and self-aware.

The other characters are incredibly lovable, but their development is a little thinner, of course. Although we read them through their own words, we’re only privy to those that address Juliet. All told, though, it’s no less satisfying than any other limited-perspective narration.

As for the plot, I suppose enjoyment of it rests in whether you can get behind the whole epistolary novel thing. Some decry them as gimmicky. Some (maybe more) tout their long literary history. Either way,
The Guernsey...Society successfully employs the mode to execute the plot. Some might argue that the use of the device is more successful than the plot itself.

I mean, the letters don't just unfold the characters, they advance the plot and lay out Guernsey's rich history as well. They provide an imaginative execution for what is maybe not the world’s most groundbreaking plot. That is, the letters and how they move the book along make fresh what is, at its core, another story of self-discovery and love.

The Guernsey...Society is a lovely story and sentimental in just the right amount. Personally, I didn’t cry or anything. I do know some people who did, though. You know who you are.

Also excellent: it takes no time to read. This earns the whole letter thing another point in my eyes.

Light, charming and sweet. Definitely worth the couple of hours it takes to read:
4 out of 5 stars.