A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I first came across this book a few months ago, seeing only the cover and a short synopsis, and I instantly wanted to read it. I ordered it from my library, only to be informed a few weeks later that they couldn’t find. It was so new it wasn’t in any system anywhere. So I resigned myself to wait.

A couple of weeks ago, as I was putting through a few orders, the librarian asked me if I’d ever gotten my hands on the book. I told him I still hadn’t, and he offered to order it for me now that it was in the Minerva system. I jumped on his offer and only a week or so later, I had it in my possession. I was surprised by how hefty it was, but when I opened it I was pleasantly surprised to see that instead of normal pages, the publishers had printed this book on glossy photo paper that really made the illustrations look gorgeous. The book has some graphic on almost every page- pen and ink drawings clutter the margins, and sometimes an illustration takes up an entire two-page spread. It was an almost cinematic atmospheric trick.

The main character of the book is thirteen year-old Conor, who wakes from his usual nightmare at seven minutes past midnight to find a monster at his window. As it turns out, Conor’s been expecting a monster, but not this strange, old one that seems to have grown from their yew tree. He finds it difficult to fear this thing when he’s seen so much worse. As it turns out, the monster doesn’t even seem particularly interested in eating him alive. Instead, it promises, it will return for three nights, and each night it will tell Conor a story of a time when it walked the earth before. When he’s told his three stories, he expect Conor to tell one to him- the truth.

Conor’s life is anything but easy as his mother seems to be suffering from an undefined cancer, his father lives in America with his other family, and he is bullied at school. On top of all this, every night when he goes to sleep he has the nightmare- one that involved darkness, screaming, falling, and a monster much scarier than the yew tree. Yet, it’s what happens at the end of this nightmare that the yew tree wants to hear about, and Conor is scared to death to tell him.

I found this book remarkable in it’s darkness and honesty. It’s an unusual telling of the story of a young child with an ill parent and circumstances he can’t control. The writing was both heavy and humorous, Conor both bold and frightened. It was a quick read, yet very provocative. I know I’ve posted this video before, but just watch it.

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Published in: on November 24, 2011 at 3:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

If a book has been made into a well-known movie, it becomes next to impossible to find a nice picture of the actual cover of the book. It’s very annoying. Mine looked like this:

Girl, Interrupted is the memoir of Susanna Kaysen, who, when she was 18 in 1966, was committed to a mental institution. Questioning her sanity with unlikely clarity, Susanna familiarizes herself and us with the cast of patients living in her ward.

The story is told as a series of vignettes; each short chapter focuses on some element of life in the hospital, or a patient with an interesting story. Susanna tells us about Polly, who set herself on fire; Janet, an anorexic; Georgina, a schizophrenic and pathological liar; Valerie, the head nurse; and Lisa, the sociopath whose domineering charisma dominates life in the ward. Moving in something slightly resembling chronological order, Susanna paints for us a picture of life in the days before being committed, the over-two-years she spent in the hospital, and just a little bit of what she did in the 25 years between being released and writing her memoir. Her narrative is sprinkled with insights into what crazy and sane are, and why people react the way they do when they hear that she’s been in a mental hospital. She even describes some of her more insane episodes (such as the time she became convinced that there were no bones in her hand) with a dry noncommittance that borders on creepy.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while, because I broke one of my cardinal rules- seeing the movie first. (Note: there are some exceptions to this rule. I don’t actually intend to read Bambi.) I think I can be forgiven, as I had no idea at the time that the movie was based on a book. Needless to say, the two are… very different. I really enjoyed the movie when I saw it, and I also really enjoyed the book, but the two actually have very little in common. I’ll try to illustrate this with as few spoilers as possible.

For one thing, where the book is told sort of as a collection of short stories, the movie transforms them into a film with a coherent storyline- a progression from A to B to The End, if you will.

While the movie includes a few tiny things that Susanna mentioned (wristbanging, for example), and nodded towards events that they chose to exclude entirely (the bone incident), they did weave elements of the original story into what was almost a new story entirely. If anything, the movie fleshes out characters that are held somewhat at a distance in the book. The movie focuses very strongly on Susanna’s destructive relationship with Lisa, while the book made Lisa seem more like a force of nature- she was there and she was powerful, but she wasn’t the villain. She wasn’t blamed.

Then there were some elements of the movie that were completely fictionalized. Honestly, this annoyed me a little. I just try to distance the movie from the book and it’s all fine. As I’ve said, they’re both very good.

Here’s the trailer for the movie:

Also, it turns out you can watch the full movie on Youtube. Here’s the link.

A final note: The memoir gets its title from the painting Girl Interrupted at Her Music by Johannes Vermeer. In the book, Susanna ties a great amount of significance to seeing this painting at an art museum shortly before going to the hospital. Years later, she returns to the museum to see it again.

Published in: on October 18, 2011 at 10:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a preview for the movie adaptation of this novel (coming out at the end of this month) which, before, I’d never heard of. The trailer freaked me out in a weird way, where I was also impossibly intrigued. The trailer mentioned that it was based on a book, and oftentimes I can read about things that I couldn’t watch, so I decided to go for it. It was even available at my own library, not inter-library loaning necessary!

The book is a first-person account of the life of a boy named Kevin Khatchadourian, told by his mother in letters to his father, several months after Kevin unleashed fire on his schoolmates at age fifteen. The novel is meant to be an exploration on the nature-versus-nurture question- basically, how much of Kevin’s blow-up was Eva’s fault? Would things have gone differently, had she been a different sort of mother?

The novel is told through a series of letters, and is a pretty good representation of why I’m not fond of novels told through letters. I feel like the way people communicate through letters in novels is not how they do it in real life. Considering that each chapter was a letter, and each chapter could be over twenty pages long, it didn’t feel like Eva was writing letters to be mailed off. It felt like she was writing a novel for an audience of one. At the very end of the book, though, something unpredictable is revealed and it all makes sense. I commend Lionel Shriver, because once I read this final bit, the way Eva was writing felt perfect. There was a reason behind it.

I thought this book was fantastic. Admittedly, it is 400 pages and the first 100 or so weren’t very gripping, it made a complete heel-face turn and was utterly fascinating for the entire rest of the book. I did not want to put it down. I spent far too many nights sitting up thinking, “You are going to be so tired at work in the morning” and not being able to stop.

The message, nature-versus-nurture, is a subtle undertone of the entire thing. It’s never addressed outright, but Eva’s guilt over the events is clear enough to put your mind to it. It’s true that she is not the best mother in the world, but it was also clear, from the moment of birth, that Kevin was not a normal child. It’s hard to say where his nature came from, but where both are involved, the book very neatly refuses to answer this question. At inspection, it feels like there’s nothing much Eva could have done differently. At closer inspection, she really wasn’t a very positive force in Kevin’s life and perhaps being born to a different mother would have changed him.

I enjoyed this book immensely and yes, it is going on my list.

Here’s the trailer that started it all. After reading the book, I’m even more nervous to see the movie, but now I know that I almost definitely will. I can’t let the story go that easily.

Published in: on September 18, 2011 at 3:38 pm  Comments (3)  
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Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

Hi, there. It’s been a while since you’ve heard from me. I am as aware and as frustrated by this as you are (probably more so). To be honest, I’ve had an excruciatingly hard time finishing a book for the past two weeks. I don’t know what it is, but I sent about six books back to the library unfinished- a couple unstarted, because I didn’t have the patience. Where I usually try to hang on to a book for 100 pages, I’ve recently only been able to read for 20 before I get fed up with an uninteresting book.

Finally I found one that I actually wanted to finish, but I didn’t have the time. Or energy. I’ve been working a lot recently, and actually doing a lot with people I don’t work with, and I’ve been able to read perhaps a chapter a day since last Wednesday. I’ve also been trying to see movies that people push at me, and I was inspired to be a bit crafty with a pair of jeans.

So this is the book that I was actually able to finish. The copy that I read from didn’t have a cover, so I’m breaking my usual rule about posting the exact copy that I read; mine was just a black hardcover. It’s a very recent publication, though, and I think this might actually be the only cover out there:

I was hoping to break out of my funk by returning to a genre which has, an overwhelming amount of time, served me well: memoir. I found a book which sounded kind of like a dream, and it reminded me of those fantastic, escapist memoirs I’ve been enamored with. It’s not a foodie book, but it does cater to my other favorite hobby: reading. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is about a mother of four boys who decides to read one book a day, for one year.

There’s a lot of backstory to this decision; her beloved older sister has recently perished to cancer. Nina hopes that be indulging heavily in their shared refuge of books, she will be able to accept her sister’s loss and her continued presence. Specifically, she looks for books that she could have shared with Anne-Marie.

Personally (perhaps because I have three of them, one being a twin), I am completely enamored with sisterhood. I love the idea of sisters, and the fact of them, and that even though they know you in and out they’ll still be seen in public with you. I’ve never been in love (and I don’t know if that would actually change anything, but), the most meaningful relationship in my life right now is the one between me and my sisters. So right at the beginning of the book, when Nina is describing life with Anne-Marie’s illness and eventual death, I felt her pain so sharply I couldn’t breathe. I very nearly cried. I don’t know how to explain it except that while I was reading, Anne-Marie was Emma. Or Julia. Or Sarah. I felt for Nina because I could imagine myself in her situation, with my own sister in pain. Dying.

Then there was the reading. Nina Sankovitch is the epitomal bookworm; raised from childhood with books in her life, and then repeating these lessons with her own boys. A woman who actually could read a book a day for a year without ever needing to throw it down and do something else, who could read an entire novel in one day and still have time for a life with her family (admittedly, she didn’t work during this year).

After a few chapters, though, something annoying became very apparent: she would turn every single book into some kind of metaphor for her life. In some way, it would teach her a lesson that would help her move along. To say this was ‘annoying’ is not entirely accurate, but after a while I would come across her, “My year of reading was traveling across the ocean with a tiger,” and I would just kind of roll my eyes. I’m impressed that she could find so much from her books, but it got a little tedious. However, there was quite enough substance in this to keep the reader going. The book was really more an analysis of love, life, and grief than it was a story with a plot.

The flashbacks were the most interesting part of the book. Every few pages, something would relate to something else; a lesson she read in a book would remind her of a lesson her father had learned in Poland during WWII. She would link kindness to kindness; pain to pain; adventure to adventure; this was the most story-like part of the book, since a flashback is a story. If that made any sense at all.

Anyway, I enjoyed the book. Oh, and I found this interesting: she started off her year of reading- the very first day- with The Elegance of the Hedgehog. And I was just like, “Hey, I read that!” I was pleased. She followed up shortly with a Dick Francis book (my mom’s favorite author), and Watership Down (my brother’s favorite book). Small world, I think.

Next, I’m flashing back to middle school. There’s this book I first tried to read- and couldn’t finish- in sixth grade. Then in seventh grade (age eleven, or thereabouts), I borrowed it again, read it through, and loved it. So I borrowed it last week from the library; I hope it’s as good now as it was then.

Hector and the Search for Happiness by Fran├žois Lelord

Hector and the Search for Happiness is a short book about a successful psychiatrist who finds himself dissatisfied because many of his patients, though there is nothing significantly wrong with their lives, are simply unhappy, and he can’t seem to fix them. Hector becomes very interested in happiness and how it works; what makes people happy and why is it seemingly unachievable by so many of his otherwise healthy patients? One day, Hector decides to go on a vacation- he will travel across the world, trying to figure out what makes people happy.

His search brings Hector through a busy metropolis in China, an unspecified country in Africa where people have very little, and the imaginary country of More, where there is more of everything. He meets a young Chinese woman and falls in love, a man who moved to Africa so he could farm harmful substances without risking arrest, a professor of happiness studies, and a monk who, despite everything, laughs quite a lot.

This is a quick novel- I got the large print edition (I’m not entirely sure how that happened, as I don’t particularly like reading large print books), and it was still under 200 pages. The writing is somewhere between novel, fairytale, and documentary. There is very little dialogue and a lot of, “Djamila told Hector about the time that~” etc. Generally it’s not a style that I find interesting, but in this case it seemed fitting- even the large print seemed suited to the book after a few pages.

Most importantly, this is a book that makes you think. Hector is trying to unravel the secrets of happiness. As he travels, he takes notes in the form of lessons, such as “Lesson no. 15: Happiness comes when you feel truly alive.” and “Lesson no. 7: It’s a mistake to think that Happiness is the goal.” (We’re not actually supposed to understand Lesson no. 7, I think. Hector doesn’t.) So it’s a very interesting book to read. It reminds me of this book one of sisters bought for another of my sisters, The Pig of Happiness, which is essentially about this pig who decides to be cheerful all the time and try to see the good in everything, and eventually his cheer rubs off on the other pigs. One of Hector’s lessons is, “Lesson no. 23: Happiness means making sure those around you are happy.”

I enjoyed this book because I enjoyed Hector’s perspective on happiness. I feel like it might be a good one to reread at some point. And, since it is very quick, I suggest you give it a few hours of your time. I think it’s worth it.

Published in: on August 1, 2011 at 10:26 am  Comments (1)  
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Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

This has been a big week for me: landed a second job and got my driver’s permit. Here’s hoping I warm up to driving, because it would be kind of terrible to hate something that I’ll undoubtedly have to do quite a lot of in my life. I care more about having the job, anyway.

So, for those interested, in the Winthrop area, I’m now a waitress at Tubby’s, and you should all come and see me. I enjoy this job much more than housekeeping (I’m not giving that job up, by the way- I’m keeping them both). Even if I hated the activity of waitressing (which I don’t), this job is still preferable because there are people around me. And, of those I’ve met so far, every one of my coworkers is very cool.

That’s all.

Oh my god. I was completely rational about writing this review up until the last fifty or so pages of the book, which came completely out of nowhere and blew me so far away that I can’t even think right now. Geeze. Deep breaths, okay.

Everything is Illuminated is a very strange book by Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, about a young man (also named Jonathan Safran Foer) who’s recently been given a photograph of his grandfather, standing with a woman named Augustine, who reportedly saved him from the Nazi’s during WWII. This took place in Ukraine, in a small nothing town known as Trachimbrod or Sofiowka. Sixty years later, Jonathan returns to Ukraine to try and find Augustine and Trachimbrod.

To help him on his quest is Alex, another young man from Ukraine who speaks a stilted sort of intelligible English, and will act as his translator. They’re accompanied by Alex’s grandfather (also Alex), who will act as their driver, and Sammy Davis Junior, Junior, Alex Sr.’s “seeing-eye bitch.” Go ahead and work that one out.

The story is told in three styles. The current action- the story of Jonathan searching for Augustine in the present day- is narrated by Alex, who is writing it as a book. This is portrayed in Alex’s excessively formal English, which was jarring at first. You get used to it quickly.

The second part is the story of Trachimbrod in the 1780’s-90’s, beginning on the day Trachim B’s wagon went into the Brod River- Trachim’s body was never recovered, but he became a legend to the village and they would celebrate him every year on Trachimday. Somehow from the wreckage, a baby was found- a young girl, eventually adopted by the “disgraced usurer Yankel D” and named Brod. This is the book Jonathan is writing.

The third part of the story is told through letters that Alex writes to Jonathan, after he has returned to America and they are both writing their books. Presumably, Jonathan is writing back to Alex, but we never see his letters. Alex tells Jonathan about his family- his brother Little Igor, whom he thinks the world of; his grandfather, who has become obsessed with Augustine; his father, who is strict and cold; and his mother, whom he only wants to be close to. Meanwhile, Alex comments on Jonathan’s story- paralleling, in many places, exactly what the reader is thinking of the action.

This is just a curiosity- but I felt, very sincerely, that this story took place in the exact same universe as The History of Love. I’m not sure how to explain this, except that I felt certain that while Jonathan and Alex were hunting down Augustine, Leo Gursky was biding his time in New York, watching his son from afar. I’ve never had this feeling with a book before. It’s odd, but I’ve never come across another novelist who writes like Nicole Krauss, except Jonathan Safran Foer- in my head, they automatically click (it’s only one of life’s perfect ironies that they’re actually married).

So this book is odd, but it was also incredibly gripping. I enjoyed reading it- though there were a few moments around 180 pages in that it slowed down a bit, it only became that much more amazing when he revealed the truth of everything. All I could think was that this was one of the most mind-bending, unbelievable, powerful things I had ever reader. I was in awe of was JSF did with the ending. I spent the last fifty pages or so just trying to breathe evenly around my accelerated heartbeat (though there easily could have been, there were no liquid tears).

As far as JSF goes, I thought that this book was much better than his other (which I liked quite a lot, so). If you have even the slightest amount of time, read this book. I’m going to add this to my rec list and buy a copy for myself, that’s how highly I thought of this book. That’s all I can say.

There’s been a movie made, starring Elijah Wood. I watched the trailer, and to be honest, the tone of the movie looks very different from the tone of the book. The movie looks much more fun- odd in a Sunshine Cleaning, Little Miss Sunshine kind of way. I have to say that I’m not sure I would watch it in conjunction with the book, but as a movie it looks interesting. Here’s the trailer, if you like:

Ape House by Sara Gruen

Happy 4th of July, everyone!

This weekend has been eventful. For those who don’t know, I’m currently learning to drive. As part of the class, students have to spend time driving with the instructor so we can find out what it’s really all about. I’ve only done this three times. The first time, everything went fine. We stayed right in Winthrop and it was basically all about accelerate, decelerate, turn, signal, etc. The second day we decided to go into Augusta (well, he decided we would go into Augusta) and get on the turnpike. Just as we were about to change lanes, I checked my blind spot and there was a car right there and I panicked because I didn’t think I could make it and my instructor got angry and it was horrible, but we made it. So the second day I almost got hit by another car.

Yesterday we went into Augusta and we did a bunch of parallel parking and a couple of rotaries. Then we were on another rotary, in the outside lane, and the guy on the inside lane- a giant truck– turns and smashes right into my door. It was actually not a big deal- the door was wrecked, but no one was hurt and both cars were still drivable- but after Saturday, and then yesterday, I felt horrible (even though it wasn’t my fault, according to my teacher, and the other guy willingly took responsibility) and my thoughts were basically a nonstop litany of, “I will never drive again, this is clearly not for me, I will live out my life in a city where I can get around on foot and public transportation.” And also there were tears.

So that was my weekend. How was yours?

Oh, and then when I got home I read for about five hours solid until I finished this book.

Ape House is about a scientist, Isabel, who studies (works with, rather) bonobos who have learned American Sign Language. They live in a “lab” which is really a facility that’s been perfectly attuned to the health of the bonobos. The apes are very sentient, and very happy.

John Thigpen is a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer who’s been assigned to report on their story- along with a second reporter named Cat Douglas, who is underhanded and sly. When they visit the Great Ape Language Lab, John is allowed in to see the apes while Cat is turned away at the door, because she has a cold. She gets to spend her day with linguists, instead. John’s experience with the apes is almost magical. There’s a passage in the book, when John is interviewing Isabel, and they mention how he actually managed to offend one of the bonobos.

[Isabel] “He got over it.”
[John] “No, he didn’t. But do you understand how strange that whole thing would seem to your average, everyday person? The concept that you can insult an animal in a social situation and have to make it up to him? And possibly fail? That you can have a two-way conversation with apes, in a human language no less, and they’re doing it simply because they want to?”
[Isabel] “By Jove, I think he’s got it!”

The day after the interview, when John and Cat are safely home in Philly, a group of extremists blow up the lab. They claim they “liberated” the apes, but what they really did was send the bonobos into a tree, in the cold, so that they could be bought by anyone while Isabel was in the ICU. As the general public didn’t understand how intelligent were the creatures they were dealing with, they treated the situation much less delicately than they should have. Now Isabel needs to find out where the bonobos went, and get them back.

Meanwhile, Cat’s stolen the story from John. After a string of indignities, he and his wife move to LA to follow a job lead for her, and John finds another paper willing to give him the ape story (no, it’s not all really that simple, but details are spoilers). The plot advances.

This novel was written by Sara Gruen, of Water for Elephants fame. If you go reread that review, you’ll see that I was quite impressed by Water for Elephants. I believe that Sara Gruen is a master of words, and even though others may complain because this one isn’t as good as the other, it’s still pretty freaking magnificent, okay? When you take an incredibly talented writer and compare all of her works to her most successful work, you’re bound to talk yourself out of a few gems.

Personally, I thought this was fantastic. I don’t think it could be any further removed from 1920’s circus life. Sara Gruen can write a spellbinding story of any situation, I am convinced. Now let’s talk about the bonobos.

Bonobos are great apes, very similar in appearance to chimpanzees (the easiest way to tell is that chimps have tan faces, while bonobos have black faces). They share over 98.7% of our DNA. They may not have gotten as much narration time as the major human characters, but these apes were fantastic. They were incredibly capable of complex conversation, using ASL and computer technology called lexigrams. There was one point at which Isabel asked a bonobo named Sam to open a window for her, and Sam refused and told her why. Encounters like this are proof to the outside world that the apes aren’t simply trained, but actually intelligent.

To research the book, Sara Gruen actually go to visit with a group of ASL-competent apes. Many of the things that the apes say in the book are inspired by things that the apes actually signed to her while she was there. She describes the experience in her author’s notes.

Another thing this book lights on is how often apes, and other animals, and abused for human purposes. She describes well-known experiments, such as the one in which infant chimps were taken from their mothers and given a surrogate mother who was made out of either terry-cloth or metal, and then studied them to see what this did to their psyche. Apes and monkeys are infected with human viruses and left to suffer and die so that human scientists can study the effects. It’s wretched what humans will do to their closest cousins, who have proven sentient. So while an ape is locked in a cage, waiting for AIDS to manifest and destroy her, she’s probably actually thinking about how terrible humans are. Apes from these facilities are notoriously aggressive, and we wonder why.

So, this book made me think hard. I also got quite emotional in some places, and really freaking pissed off in others. It was magnificently written and delivered. I really enjoyed it.

Next, I have a very short book from the library. Tomorrow I’ll have to go back and find a few more. Meanwhile, I’ve been assigned 85 pages in this motorists handbook for driver’s ed, because Mother and Teacher still want me to try again. It’s like… well, it is actually reading an instruction manual. It’s awful. Novels are much more interesting.

Published in: on July 4, 2011 at 11:55 am  Comments (4)  
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Peony in Love by Lisa See

The only thing worth note right now is that I’m approximately two weeks away from being completely finished with school.

(If anyone is interested in hiring an intelligent, dedicated highschool grad looking to save money for college, now is your chance.)

I surprised myself when I suddenly decided that I absolutely had to read this book right now. I was doing history homework, you see, and being completely irritated and bored out of my mind, stuck in that space where I’m demanding to know what purpose this information will have for me (really, we’re talking US tariffs in the 1930’s, a time when tariffs changed every other week, and I had to read about every single one). I started considering how many better ways there are to learn history. Then I thought of the other two books I’ve read by Lisa See, who writes fascinating novels about women growing up during different periods in China’s history. This one is told from the point of view of young Peony, and takes place between the years 1660 and 1694, approximately.

At sixteen, Peony is the beautiful daughter of the wealthy Chen family. She is to be married away in only five months. The book begins on the first day of the Double Seven festival- the seventh day of the seventh month, which also happens to be Peony’s birthday. Festivals are, for the most part, happy times of celebration, but this year the Chen family has arranged something special: a private performance of her favorite opera, The Peony Pavilion. Because it’s improper for unmarried young women to be seen or be in the company of men, the women watch the opera from behind a screen. Party way through the performance, she begins to feel overwhelmed, and leaves her family behind to take a walk and get some air.

On her excursion, Peony runs into a mysterious young man, and even though she is a very loyal daughter, she can’t help but be entranced by the charming poet. They meet again, on each night of the Double Seven festival, and then part ways.

While I do love Lisa See for her fantastically informative writing, her books are a little heavy. This one, at 275 pages, took my nine days to read. It’s difficult to explain exactly what’s up, though. It’s not a lack of interest, or that it’s difficult, it just takes forever. It’s the exact opposite of a quick read.

This book was probably my least favorite of the three I’ve read, but you see, it’s very hard to explain why without revealing a very major plot point. Even the summary given on the book can’t explain the book; it sounds like some mystical journey through hell, with demons and sword fighting. In reality, it is a very deep book about a very tragic love. It is powerfully feminine (and feminist). It was magical and scary and fantastic. It was a very good books, because being the least of three, behind two exceptional books, is not the worst thing I could say about a book on my site.

One of the things that keeps me coming back to Lisa See is that her books are as much about the Chinese culture as they are about the events through which the characters pace. Of course, footbinding gets a brief highlight- am I the only one fascinated by this?- but what really plays a lead part in this one are the marriage and funeral rituals. The ancient Chinese beliefs in the afterworld are played straight. It’s all very, very different from how we are now, and I can’t get enough of that.

Here’s something fun that happened the other day. I was watching the movie Mulan with my little sister (she’s nine and she’s never seen it; it was my duty as her role model to right this wrong), and suddenly I ticked and went, “Why aren’t Mulan’s feet bound?” I mean, Mulan was clearly from a wealthy family. Her father was an important man. Suddenly it all seemed improbably to me. And I thought that the story was based on a real woman, too, so I was wondering how all of this was accomplished. Today, I did the research. The answer to this conundrum is actually very simple.

The Mulan legend (only a legend, I’m afraid) first surfaced around the year 400 AD. Chinese women did not start practicing the art of footbinding until 900 AD. So Mulan wouldn’t have had bound feet. For more information on Mulan, go here. For more information on footbinding, read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See. Or, if you’re pressed for time and you really need to know about body mutilation right now, go here. You should still read Snow Flower, though.

Published in: on May 26, 2011 at 9:23 pm  Comments (1)  
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A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Hi! If you don’t want to read 700 words about my day antiquing, you can skip down right to the first picture.

First though, I want to shout out to my sister, who is kind of ambiently poking me right now (that’s a twin thing), and to whom I was within six feet of for basically this entire day, a large portion of which was spent with her head in my lap, very nearly obstructing my reading material. She keeps telling me sweet flattering things that make me want to hug her and I should really just put it out there that my day wouldn’t have been as awesome without her in it, poking me with ambience.

Oh, today has been tons of fun. You see, a few days ago I was feeling bored with everything and very restless and irritable and aimless because life felt pointless, and it was in this mood that I convinced my mom that a roadtrip was in order. An aimless roadtrip with an unknown destination. Oh, we tossed out some towns we could visit within a few hours of here- Salem, Portsmouth, South Hampton- but ultimately we were just looking for interesting signs. We ended up taking an exit that lead to a “historic waterfront” with a “maritime museum,” and as soon as we got off the exit we stopped at a gas station to ask directions. This was fun because I was kind of hyper and really just sort of flailed at the poor baffled man behind the counter, but we did get directions.

We managed to find our way downtown and locate the museum (the giant bouys out front were helpful in that pursuit), but it turned out to be closed because March in New England doesn’t generally attract tourists. However, also in front of the museum was a sign that said “Oldie’s Marketplace,” and at the other side of the parking lot was this giant, eccentric-looking warehouse with the same title on it, so we decided that that was definitely worth checking out.

Oldie’s turned out to be a huge antique store, kind of. It was giant, for one thing, and everything was beyond nifty. They had old books and housewares, toys and tools, jars of buttons and knick-knacks, figurines and glassware, old records and photos… it was completely thrilling. Vintage hats and clothing (Emma bought a fantastic newsboy cap to which she affixed a golden turtle pin- it looks absolutely smashing on her recently-sheared cranium), but then, folks, but then, Emma found a case filled with old cameras.

It was like Jensen Ackles had come and offered me a piggy-back ride, that’s how excited I was. There were five in the case, ranging in price from eighteen dollars to forty-five, and later we would find a second case with even more expensive cameras and a few old video reel cameras which looked fantastic but about which I know nothing. I picked up and handled each one (with numb, clumsy fingers- this place was frigid) and eventually selected the cheapest camera, which was a Brownie Hawkeye. This camera has to be at least fifty-sixty years old, and since Brownies are actually toy cameras for children to use (you can see Charlie Brown and the gang using them in the really old strips), it’s made of plastic and virtually indestructable, ha! Here’s a picture of it. The flash is removable, and mine doesn’t have a bulb in it. I prefer toting the camera around naked.

After our purchases had been made (I also bought a couple of old matchboxes to add to my collection), we went to lunch at a seafood restaurant, which was much fun and the food was good. Over the meal I somehow (I don’t actually know how I accomplished this) convinced mom to let us go back to Oldie’s and buy me the second-cheapest camera they had, for twenty-five dollars. Keep in mind: I had paid for the Brownie, but mom had paid for Emma’s hat. This probably influenced her decision.

My second camera was a Kodak Retina III c. Pay attention to the door next to the lens- I guess the idea is that it collapses? I can’t get mine to do that, though, but that’s probably just because it’s very old and has been in this position for a very long time. I also can’t open the door where you would insert the film. This one also came with a pretty Indian-style strap, and both had cases.

All in all, it was quite a thrilling find! I collect cameras, even ones that don’t work- I think I have six or seven at this point? Oh, and hey, if you’re interesting in actually seeing my photography, you can go here.

This is going to be a really long entry. That up there? About 700 words already, and I read three books in the car- it was a six-hour roundtrip. Firstly, I finished the novel I’ve been reading, then I read a two quick graphic novels.


I’m on a website called tumblr, and on this website called tumblr I follow a blog called Coverspy, which is based in New York, and the guy who runs the blog goes on subways and such and notices what people are reading, then posts a picture and a short description of the reader. It’s interesting, and that’s how I found out about this book. They showed a (different) picture on Coverspy.

A Gate at the Stairs is about a young college student named Tassie who’s in need of funds, so she goes around trying to find a job as a nanny. After falling flat a few times, she finds Sarah Brink, an eccentric middle-aged woman who owns a restaurant and is soon to adopt a child with her husband, Edward. Working on instinct, Sarah hires Tassie for the job, and Tassie is there from step zero; she goes with Tassie to meet several birth mothers, then to meet the child (a young half-black girl named Mary), and then to bring her home. She starts work the next day.

I don’t know how to explain that there’s really a lot to this novel. Tassie herself was very average- she starts the novel at age nineteen, just kind of hovering, and she feels the same way at the end- just hovering. But it’s a different kind of hover that I can’t explain because everything that’s been set up for the first 260 pages all gets flip-flopped over in the final sixty. It was exciting, but also kind of terrible. What begins as an enlightening, humorous exploration into purposelessness becomes a frightening, nihilistic conclusion.

It was an incredible read, but I’m not sure I would recommend it to everyone because of the uncomfortable ending.

One theme that ran strong throughout the entire book was that of race. This story takes place in the southern USA, in a place where a white couple adopting a half-black baby was shocking and uncommon. Sarah forms a group for biracial families that meets on Wednesdays. Tassie takes care of the children in an upstairs room while listening to bits of the conversation drifting through the floorboards.

A good book- but perhaps not one that I would read again.

The second book I read on the trip- a very quick read. The Night Bookmobile is a graphic novel by Audrey Niffeneger (whose work I’m a fan of- she wrote The Time-Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry) about a girl named Alexandra who, at a time in her youth, wanders upon a Winnebago inside which resides a library of every book she’s ever read. The Library closes at dawn, however, and so she has to leave. Once the bookmobile drives away, however, she can’t locate it again for another nine years!

The bookmobile becomes an obsession for Alexandra, who asks the librarian to take her with him, only to be told that there is no position for her in the Library. Her life slowly loses meaning, though she decides to become a regular librarian and spends all of her free time adding to the bookmobile.

I really enjoyed this book and intend to buy a copy of it. Since it’s so quick, I gave it to my mom and brother to read as well, but they seemed dubious as to it’s merits, particularly in light of the ending. Max asks me what does it mean, and I am very bad at answering that question. I can read books with messages- Gate at the Stairs certainly had a message- but I can’t tell you what it was. In my opinion, The Night Bookmobile was meant to say, to bookworms like me, that the books you read are more important that the time it takes you to read them. For Alexandra, that library became a better representation of her than she was.

This is the final book I read today- The Man Who Grew Young, by Daniel Quinn (author of Ishmael), is about a universe where time progresses in reverse, the idea being that once the universe completes it’s journey forward, it yo-yos back again to the beginning. So every person’s life begins when they’re taken from the ground, and ends with them, as infants, returning to their mothers’ bodies. The main character is a man named Adam Taylor, who- doesn’t seem to have a mother.

Rather than regress through adolescence and childhood, as everyone around him does, Adam remains perpetually youthful, a man of no more than thirty years, living backwards through time. Across his journey, he searches for his mother and answers. He thinks he’ll find them in the same place.

This book takes effort- I had to continue reminding myself that time is not progressing in the line we imagine it does. I was also constantly thinking, “Why, why are they doing this?” with the answer being “well, obviously because they did that the first time around,” and that’s a thinking trap because they were unaware that time had originally moved differently; they didn’t do anything to undo what they had done the first time, to unravel the yarn. It was especially interesting, as industrialization and history reversed, how they justified giving up luxuries and going “primitive.”

The most interesting part for me was right at the end, when Adam was with an old man who was unpainting artwork in caves. The man tells Adam that these paintings don’t belong on the cave wall, they belong inside him, and that he is the only person in the world who could do this. I had to imagine Van Gogh unpainting Starry Night, Monet unpainting his countless waterlilies. All artwork belongs inside someone, and when they see it, they’ll know. There was even a part closer to the beginning where Adam fed a photo into the slot of a Polaroid camera, then “untook” the picture.

It’s a completely bizarre concept, though, and it comes with questions Daniel Quinn probably knows the answers to but can’t explain? But it left me with a feeling of “well, that doesn’t work.” It’s what made the timeline so impossible to comprehend. I asked Max what it meant, and he said the idea is that we go to earth when we die, but we’re really born from earth as well- but to me it feels like it can’t possibly be that simple.

I had a very good day. Reading good books, buying good cameras, eating good food (we stopped off for chocolate on the way back home, and I made a caramel tart yesterday which I would really like but I should definitely be making a stronger effort to control my sweettooth- the thing is getting an attitude), and enjoying good company. We took a break from cakemaking this weekend, but I’ve been doing a lot of cooking this week which has really made me feel good. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the next few years, and for once these fantasies were not accompanied with feelings of dread. I don’t really want to share my thoughts, though, because someone will force me to acknowledge that real life is not a chickflick.

House Rules by Jodi Picoult

This week has been so incredibly difficult for me that this book has been pure escape. On the other hand, there have been happenings this week for which I have been incredibly grateful- like all the snow which kept me out of every single on of my painting classes. For those who don’t know, I’m quite the artistic individual and incredibly right brained- I’ve begun to thing I could have my left brain removed without significant impairment to my functioning- but my hands haven’t really gotten the picture. Drawing and painting aren’t my medium, and so I’ve found the class incredibly frustrating. Actually less so since we’ve done less actual painting- these past two months have been spent between clay projects (also something I’m not particularly amazing at) and oral reports on an artist of our choice. Besides that, we just have to paint at home, which is much easier. I tend to go abstract.

So I’ve been glad to be out of painting. I’ve also been neglecting astronomy, since objectively speaking I know I still have time to get it done. Instead, I’ve been working on astronomy lab (which is a different class) and history. I’ve had a lot of work to do, and none of it is actually done. As for today- well, I’ve been in an extreme amount of pain. But in the spaces, I’ve still been reading this book.

House Rules, newest novel by my favorite authoress, the amazing and talented Jodi Picoult. I love this woman’s work. This novel is about an eighteen year-old man with Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. Jacob has an intense interest in forensics, which leads to him setting up fake crime scenes for his mother to solve, watching endless episodes of his favorite television show, Crimebusters, and recording case details in a series of notebooks. He’s also developed a tendency to show up at crime scenes and drop hints to help the CSIs solve the case he’s already figured out.

All of this makes him strange.

Because Jacob has Asperger’s, he has virtually no social skills at all. Asperger’s is described as a basic lack in any sort of empathy- a person was AS can’t relate to other people. It’s difficult to explain- the book does it in fragments- but because of all this, Jacob had a social skills tutor, whose job it was to teach him how to act appropriately in these situations he couldn’t read. It was described as going to a foreign country and not knowing the language.

So Jacob is an autistic person with a fixation on forensics, who can’t relate to people at all. He also carries other hallmarks of AS, such as stimming, echoing, and an inability to look people in the eye. And other “quirks.”

These are only a few of the reasons why, when someone shows up dead, Jacob looks very suspicious.

I’ll say this right now: I love Jodi Picoult, and I want to marry her brain. I’ve read twelve of her (nineteen) books, and they’re all fantastic. She’s just marvelous in description and scene, everything connects, but probably the part that really sells me, is the characters.

In a Jodi Picoult book, every character may not be likeable- but they are all very understandable. You can place yourself into each of their shoes. By the end of the book, you may not have done what they did, but you understand why they did it. So what it boils down to is what kind of person they are.

Part of the reason for this is that many of Picoult’s novels feature a multiple-narrator point of view, where each chapter is headed by a character’s name, the font changes, and the story is told through their eyes for a time. It works fantastically well. She also uses excerpts from history, scientific facts, and personal flashbacks to illustrate ideas, all of it coming through in the voice of the character narrating.

Another thing she does is take an interest from a character, and make it a recurring thing- just an aside from the story, something to remind you where this all comes from. In My Sister’s Keeper, it was firefighting, because the father was a firefighter. In Handle with Care, it was baking, because the mother had been a baker. Between every five or six chapters she would give you a recipe for some desert and explain how to make it in a way that made you more sympathetic to Charlotte. In House Rules, she used murder. Every few chapters, she would describe a historic murder, how it was committed, and how the killer was caught.

One thing I will say for this one, which I consider a detriment, is that for the first time, I knew how it had happened. I had actually figured it out, based on the points of view of the different characters involved. It’s possible she meant for this to be the case, but I’m used to being surprised by the big reveal. I enjoy it. And that’s the main reason why this won’t rank up with my favorites of hers.

Oh, and if you’re curious- the reason it’s called House Rules is that, since Jacob is autistic and Theo (the younger brother) is not, Emma (the mother) set up a list of mutually relevant rules for them both to follow. These rules turn out to be incredibly relevant as more and more of the story comes out.

Really, though- it might not have been one of my favorites, but I still read it in every spare moment. I never wanted to put it down. I read 532 in under five days. I paid for it before reading it. It was worth every ridiculously expensive penny.

Have you noticed how expensive books have gotten lately?

But anyway. If you want to read a Jodi Picoult, begin with My Sister’s Keeper- thanks to the movie, that one’s probably the most well-known, it was the first of hers that I read, and it’s still one of my favorites. Then you can read the entire rest of her life’s work.

Next, I’m going to reread a couple of books from my list of recs (which is over at the top of the page on the right), then in a couple of weeks, I’ll pay a visit to the library. Until then, folks.

Published in: on January 23, 2011 at 11:26 pm  Comments (2)  
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