Tag Archives: Books Read in 2007

22: Man Walks into a Room

Man Walks into a Room by Nicole Krauss

Man Walks into a Room

Sneaking in one last book for 2007. Appropriately, it is actually a remainder table find ๐Ÿ™‚

Man Walks into a Room is Nicole Krauss’s first (or debut, as the literati like to say) novel. Krauss is married Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer is, aykb, a literary darling. I haven’t read any of his work (though I might have to now) because having read MWiaR, I have to wonder why he gets all the attention.

Loved this book.

One of the dust jacket blurbs says, “Man Walks into a Room is that rare thing: an evocative, finely written first novel that is a true work of fiction.” —A.M. Homes. (In that respect, it reminded me of Eden and her first novel, which she really needs to find a publisher for!)

Samson Greene is a 36-year-old literature professor with a wife and a life in New York city until the removal of a benign brain tumor causes him to lose the last 24 years of his memory. MWiaR is about his reaction to that loss, but it is also an exploration of mind and memory, loneliness and intimacy:

…then and there it occurred to him that maybe the emptiness he’d been living with all this time hadn’t really been emptiness at all, but loneliness gone unrecognized. How can a mind know how alone it is until brushes up against some other mind? A single mark had been made, another person’s memory imposed onto his mind, and now the magnitude of his own loss was impossible for Samson to ignore. (pp. 192-193)

Near the end of the book, there was a riff on WASPy nicknames like Pip and Chip and Kick. Would’ve been a throwaway bit, except one of the names was Apple. Had to check the dates to see if she was poking fun at Gwyneth Paltrow, but no, Gwyneth’s daughter wasn’t born until 2004. I guess she was just prescient ๐Ÿ˜‰

Some links:

21: Birds of America

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

Birds of America

Lorrie Moore was one of those names I kept hearing around the book blogosphere, so when I saw this in fave used bookstore (I know, getting a little repetitive in the “where I got this book” department…) I picked it up.

Birds of America is a collection of short stories. What is there to say? Moore’s writing is really, really good. And the stories are really, really sad. So, you might think that this wouldn’t be the best choice for late-night-when-you-can’t-sleep reading (which is what I found myself doing a few times), and yet… somehow it was okay, because they are funny (witty, clever, biting, sarcastic) as well as sad.

Not having read any of Moore’s work before, I kept waiting for her to veer into slit-your-wrists territory, but she always pulled back before she got there (now that’s talent). The negative reviews at Amazon (I do so love reading those after I finish a book! hee!) call the book depressing, but I disagree. It’s sad, but not depressing.

Since BoA was published in 1998, I couldn’t resist a trip back to the early days of the interwebs:

One of the best things I’ve read this year!

20: The Last Good Day

Gail Bowen, The Last Good Day

The Last Good Day

I was looking for a fun weekend afternoon read and grabbed this off the to-read shelf. I think I got it from a pile of books my mom was discarding. (Free!)

I really wanted to like this book. The narrator sounded cool (55yo female university professor/amateur sleuth). It’s set in Saskatchewan! I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in Saskatchewan that wasn’t CanLit. And the reviews on the back cover are glowing: “a treat from first page to final paragraph” (Globe & Mail), “Bowen is a national treasure” (Ottawa Citizen), etc. Apparently it was also shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for best novel.

Really?! Did we read the same book? Because I actually thought it was really bad. I love Canadianisms as much as the next Canadian, but some of the CanCon here seemed soooo deliberate. Like, “Hey, I think I’ll stick in a priest with a West Indies accent (even though said character doesn’t actually have a speaking role—or a name, for that matter) because, aykb, Canada’s a multicultural society!” Or the completely random mention of a character carrying a Zeller’s bag. (Groan.)

[digression] Been thinking about this, because I think this is an important thing to remember when writing fiction. Random mentions feel like you’re working off a checklist (or namedropping). Stuff should have a reason for being there. If you’re going to mention a priest with a West Indies accent (interesting detail), then he should play a role in the story (he doesn’t). If you’re going to mention a Zeller’s bag (rather than a plain old plastic bag), then the fact it’s a Zeller’s bag should be significant (it isn’t). OTOH, the references to the RCMP felt perfectly natural, because there was a legitimate reason for them to be there. Good lesson here I think. I know I’ve been guilty of no-reason namedropping. But I think it’s important to note that it’s not just brand names—any detail can come across as awkward if it stands out and doesn’t serve a purpose. [/digression]

It was also excessively telly. Early in the book, a character dies. The narrator has been acquainted with this person for less than 24 hours, and has had exactly one 10-minute conversation with him (in which he confides his deepest, darkest secret — and… can I just say, unrealistic much? — yes, I always go around confiding my intimate secrets to complete strangers). Anyhow, after he dies, narrator goes on and on and on about how shattered she was by his death. Now granted, she witnessed his car driving into a lake and attempted a rescue (hint: it’s easier to break a window in a sinking car than to try to open a door!), so that would be somewhat disturbing. But she didn’t know the guy. The significance that the narrator kept saying this had on her seemed all out of proportion with what we had been shown of these characters.

The telliness also meant the characters were flat and uninteresting. There were a lot of characters, but none of them were fleshed out. Nobody felt real. The “Winners’ Circle” was annoying (I mean, honestly. On principle, who wouldn’t hate a group of law school students who named themselves the Winners’ Circle and still referred to themselves by that name 25 years later? How irritating must they be?). I couldn’t work up an iota of sympathy for these people.

The inciting incident basically made no sense. A work-related transgression (by guy who dies early in book) was blown out of proportion by a character who we don’t actually get to know first-hand (making the reasoning behind what she did in response to her discovery even less understandable). And then his reaction (driving his car into a lake, amongst other things) to that is also way beyond realistic.

But here’s the thing that drove me absolutely batty: this book was published in 2004. In the book, the characters are happily using email and have GPS in their cars. So, it is set in present day. However, when they are told that a character has moved to Vancouver to work at a law firm there, but are suspicious as to whether this is true or not, not one person thinks to use Google to check out the story. Isn’t that the first thing you would do? I mean, all medium-to-large law firms have websites! Generally with all the lawyers listed. Now, granted, some small ones don’t. But then there’s also the Law Society website, which lists all practicing and non-practicing lawyers in the province! Seriously, this story would take like two minutes to check out. I just could not get past this.

Maybe the characters couldn’t either, as they seemed inclined to take themselves out. Yes, the number of suicides (3*) in this novel outnumber the murders (1). So not only was it a frustrating read (Gooooooogle!), it was also depressing. Not exactly what I look for in a mystery. (ymmv, of course. I could not find one negative review of this book, so I am definitely in the minority.)

*Technically, that includes a murder-suicide, but as it was a pact between the two individuals, it was essentially a double-suicide.

19: The Mirror and the Veil

Viviane Serfaty, The Mirror and the Veil: An Overview of American Online Diaries and Blogs.

The Mirror and the Veil

The Mirror and the Veil was another book I read for my Directed Reading course this summer. Here’s Serfaty’s explanation of the title:

[The computer screen] operat[es] as a paradoxical, twofold metaphor, that of a veil and that of a mirror. … The screen, which mediates Internet access, thus establishes a dialectical relationship between disclosure and secrecy, between transparency and opacity. There is no such thing as private content on the Internet; the pretence of privacy is de facto shattered to pieces, since anyone can gain access to any site the world over, yet the diarists feel protected by the very size of the Internet. (p.13)

The most valuable thing about this book for me was Serfaty’s discussion of her methodological approach and her reasoned justification for taking the approach that she did because it gives me a precedent for the approach I plan to take with my thesis.

Serfaty discusses the privacy issues with respect to researching diaries and discusses the literary and the social scientific approaches to such research. The literary approach rests on the assumption that the protagonist is a fictional construct (to a certain extent): “personal writings on the Internet are not be viewed as ‘slice-of-life’ documents or faithful reflections of reality. Attention is instead focused on the internal logic of the text, seen as a self-contained, self-referential artifact.” (p.10) The social scientific approach, on the other hand, requires the researcher to look beyond the text and make contact with the diarists.

Serfaty finds this problematic for a number of reasons. It requires the researcher to engage in participant observation, which is difficult and modifies the behavior of the observed (exactly my concern). Also, the exchange of correspondence between researcher and diarist creates “an intimate pact” that isn’t a very scientific approach to research. Familiarity with the diarist is likely to lead to further problems: either breaching the diarist’s trust, or conversely, being reluctant to expose unflattering aspects of the diarist’s life. Serfaty’s approach was thus to carefully avoid any interaction with the diarists she studied.

Another key issue is anonymity (or the lack thereof). The AoIR approach is to use pseudonyms. However, as Serfaty points out (and as I have reiterated many times) URLs of the blogs must be cited, making pseudonyms moot. Serfaty takes the approach that while blogs are often personal and intimate, they are not private. “Anyone who engages in self-representational writing on the Internet is not producing private material, but is engaging instead in ‘public acts deliberately intended for public consumption'” (p. 12).

On a less serious note, she quotes these very bloggy moments from “The Importance of Being Earnest” (Oscar Wilde):

Miss Prism: I really don’t see why you keep a diary at all.
Cecily: I keep a diary in order to enter all the wonderful secrets of my life. If I didn’t write them down, I should probably forget all about them.

Cecily: I am afraid you must be under some misconception. Ernest proposed to me exactly ten minutes ago. [shows diary]
Gwendolen: [examines diary through her lorgnette carefully] It is certainly very curious, for he asked me to be his wife yesterday afternoon at 5:30. If you would care to verify the incident, pray do so. [produces diary of her own.] I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.

Algernon: Do you really keep a diary? I’d keep anything to look at it. May I?
Cecily: Oh no. You see, it is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication. When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy.

If Oscar were around today, I bet he’d blog. Funniest play ever, I tell ya. Must go read it again.

18: Writing a Woman’s Life

Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn Gold Heilbrun

Writing a Womanโ€™s Life

I read this for my directed reading course this summer. At the top of my notes I wrote: “This might be worth buying.” That was in June. Then in July, on my annual Book Shop spree, I stumbled upon a copy of the book. Fate?

Heilbrun (1926-2003) was an English professor at Columbia when female professors were rarities and she was pissed off at how male academics treated their female colleagues. It probably would have made her life easier if she had publicly hidden that anger (and ranted in private, as one does) but she felt it was important that women express anger so that other women could learn from their experiences (or realize they are not alone):

The expression of anger has always been a terrible hurdle in women’s personal progress. Above all, the public and private lives cannot be linked, as in male narratives. โ€ฆ [W]omen are therefore unable to write exemplary lives: they do not dare to offer themselves as models, but only as exceptions chosen by destiny or chance. (p.25)

What matters is that lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. (p.37)

I like that last bit especially. Quote for my thesis, perhaps.

This has nothing to do with my thesis but I did find it amusing/sad in light of recent news articles:

In the last years of the twentieth century, it is unclear whether women who refer to themselves as, for example, Mrs. Thomas Smith know what servitude they are representing in that nomenclature. The same might be said today of women who exchange their last name for their husband’s. … Any possible ambivalence about this matter should surely have ended by the beginning of the 1980s at the latest. (p.85)

The 1980s! Haha! Heilbrun would no doubt be chagrined to learn that name-giving-up is more popular now than it was in the ’80s and that a Gen-Yer in Quebec (where “married names” have been legally prohibited since 1981) is suing so she can take her husband’s name. Gah. (Of course, the irony of Heilbrun’s position is that she adopted her husband’s name. That was, however, 40+ years prior to her writing this book, so I guess she had time to change her mind ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

So anyway… after I finished the book, I looked Heilbrun up (ironically because I was curious about this series of detective novels she’d written—the Kate Fansler mysteries, as Amanda Cross) and that’s when I discovered that she quit her position at Columbia (age 66) because she felt unwelcome. Then she committed suicide (age 77) apparently because she felt her life had been completed.

Ack. Everything I’ve read tries to put a positive spin on this, in the vein of she wrote her own ending to her own story. But I can’t help but thinking: isn’t that classic cutting off your nose to spite your face? From what I’ve read a lot of women looked up to her as a role model. And she said herself that people need stories to follow. So for those who were following her story—they’re left with what? The jerks of the world will always win (or at least they’ll wear you down so you get tired of fighting) so you may as well kill yourself?

Ugh.

I really liked this book—but this coda left me conflicted. Lots to think about anyhow. Here are a few more links:

17: Skin Divers

Skin Divers by Anne Michaels

Skin Divers

Anne Michaels’s The Weight of Oranges / Miner’s Pond is probably my favorite poetry collection (really two collections in one volume) of all time. Maybe because so many of the poems are about rain.

From “Rain Makes Its Own Night” (The Weight of Oranges):

Rain makes its own night, long mornings with the lamps left on.
Lean beach grass sticks to the floor near your shoes,
last summer’s pollen rises from damp metal screens.

This is order, this clutter that fills clearings between us,
clothes clinging to chairs, your shoes in a muddy grip.

Mmm. Anyhow, Skin Divers is her third volume of poetry. This was another used bookstore find. A few weeks ago, feeling the need for a poetry fix, I plucked it off the To Read shelf and read it all in one sitting. It’s a slim volume, as they say—only 68 pages including the acknowledgments—so this was not a great feat. But… I always feel a little guilty reading a book so fast when I know how long it probably took to write it. (And that feeling is not helped by the quote on the back cover of the dust jacket which closes: “This is a book to be grateful for, to read, and be read by, slowly.”) !!! Way to pour on the guilt, Don McKay ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’ll try to make up for speed with re-readings.

When I’m evaluating poetry, the most important thing for me is that it sound right. It should have rhythm. It should flow. If it sounds right, it doesn’t have to be logical. It’s poetry. So much of the “poetry” we receive at TC is clunky and prosaic. Inserting random line breaks does not turn prose into poetry. (This is what happens when people write poetry, but don’t read it, methinks. But that’s a rant for another day.)

Michaels’s poetry sounds right. It’s… deceptively simple. Some lines you might think: I (or anyone) could have written that. And then you read it again and think: wow, that’s amazing.

From “Skin Divers”:

Like the moon, I want to touch places
just by looking. To tell
new things at three in the morning, when we’re
awake with rain or any sadness, or slendering through
reeds of sleep, surfacing to skin. In this room
where so much has happened, where love
is the clink of buttons as your shirt slides
to the floor, the rolling sound of loose change;
a book half open, clothes
half open. Again we feel
how transparent the envelope
of the body, pushed through the door
of the world.

Oh, hey. Rain again ๐Ÿ™‚

16: The Partly Cloudy Patriot

The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell

The Partly Cloudy Patriot

I :heart: Sarah Vowell in the same way I :heart: Tina Fey. Witty, snarky, incisive. What more do you need?

I read Take the Cannoli back in 2005, after I had started keeping track what I was reading, but before I started writing posts about each book (which, btw, was the best. idea. ever. I don’t care if everyone else thinks they’re dull as doornails). The Partly Cloudy Patriot I picked up at The Book Shop (shocking! ;-)). There was a book mark inside the front cover from a bookstore called The Book Mark (a book mark from The Book Mark!) with an address in Atlantic Beach, Florida. Oh, I do like to think that this book traveled all the way from Florida to Penticton. It just seems so apropos.

The Partly Cloudy Patriot was published in 2002 and is a collection of essays. The date is significant because it’s packed with pop culture references (as well as nerd humor and historical tourism). So while I adore Vowell’s sense of humor, I’m thinking those who can’t remember said references might not be similarly amused. Remember this post where I asked my students (millennials, formerly known as gen-Y) what their first media memory was? Some of them couldn’t even remember back to 2001/02!

Memory-challenged millennials aside, this is a fast, entertaining read. Which is not to say it doesn’t tackle serious issues. You know, like the 2000 US election. (Poor Al, done in by his nerdiness.) Showing her prescience, one essay is called “Tom Cruise Makes Me Nervous.” Ha! There’s even one on Canada (“Cowboys vs. Mounties”). Unsurprisingly, she confesses that some of her favorite comedians (Kids in the Hall!) are Canadian. Of course they are. It’s the snark, I tell ya.

15: The Untelling

The Untelling by Tayari Jones

The Untelling

I’ve been reading Tayari’s Blog for over two years now. IIRC, I found it through a guest post she had made at another blog. Tayari’s published two novels (The Untelling is her second) and is working on a third. Leaving Atlanta is her first novel. She teaches creative writing, and is currently assistant professor at Rutgers-Newark (she moves around a lot!).

Tayari’s blog is one of my favorites. It’s a great writing-about-writing blog. But extra-appealing because she’s my age and is doing the academic thing, too. I’ve wanted to read her novels since I started reading it. So what took me so long? Well, apparently bookstores here don’t carry them :-S (I haven’t seen Laila Lalami‘s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits either). Yes, I could have ordered from Amazon or Chapters. But my to-read bookshelf is already overflowing (because I have no resistance when I see a book I want in person) without also ordering books online (where would it stop?!). I tell myself I can buy books online if I whittle down the to-read pile, but just when I think I’m getting there, I go on a used bookstore (or remainder table) spree and eek! it’s overflowing again. (Oh, but you know I wouldn’t have it any other way.)

/digression

Anyhow, happily I did stumble across The Untelling in The Book Shop this summer and of course snapped it up. The Untelling‘s mc is Ariadne (called Aria). When Aria was not-quite 10, her family was in a car accident in which her father and baby sister died. Unsurprisingly, this tragedy has affected Aria enormously, and her relationships with her mother and her older sister continue to be strained. In the now of the story (mid-’90s), Aria is in post-university limbo. She’s 25, living with her best friend Rochelle in a somewhat sketchy neighborhood (starting to be gentrified, but not quite there yet), and teaching literacy to people studying for their GEDs. Rochelle is engaged and will soon move out. Aria daydreams about her boyfriend Dwayne moving in when Rochelle moves out, even though Dwayne doesn’t like the neighborhood.

And then she tells people something that turns out not to be true. She thinks it’s the truth; only later she finds out she is mistaken and must figure out how to “untell” it. This is complicated by why she was mistaken and the post-traumatic stress and guilt she’s still suffering from. (I know that’s a little vague, but I’m trying not to be spoilerish.)

One thing I really liked about reading this was seeing so many things Tayari has mentioned in her blog pop up in the story. For example, she’s written about having this word processor—one of those typewriter-like devices that saved a few lines so you could check your typing before the words actually went on the page—and one of those shows up in the story. (One of the girls on my residence floor in first year had one—was v. jealous at the time. Haha!)

Now I want to read Leaving Atlanta.

14: S is for Silence

S is for Silence by Sue Grafton

S is for Silence

So I finished the final paper of my coursework (thesis, here I come) and wanted to read something fast and fun. The Kinsey Millhone series is a holdover from another era; I read some of the early books when they first came out (A, B, etc.) and while I haven’t kept up with the series, I’ll read them if they fall into my lap. My mom passed this one on to me.

S is set in 1987; Kinsey is 37. Out of curiosity, I looked up when A is for Alibi was first published—1982 (hmm, that really was another era!). Since Kinsey was 32 in the first book, this means that the initial book of the series was set in the present, but now the series is set firmly in the past. Nothing against setting stories in the past, but this is kind of weird for a series, don’t you think? To have it be contemporary to begin with, but become historical? I mean, this book reads very differently to me now than A did when I read it in the early 80s.

I imagine there are two reasons Grafton might have decided to do this. One, had the books remained contemporary, Kinsey would now be 57. While she certainly could still be a PI at 57, it seems likely that other aspects of her life would have changed in that period of time. Like she might not be living in a garage apartment, her landlord (who was 80-something in A) would probably not be still living, and Chardonnay might no longer be her drink of choice. And we all know that genre books like to maintain their worlds once they’ve been established. Two: the Internet & cell phones. Kinsey is still using payphones, answering machines, and doing research at the library. And while I can see plenty of reasons why an author might want to set a story pre-Internet & cell phone, in a series this long, I think it would have been more interesting for readers to see Kinsey adapt to these changes (as real PIs have had to do if they have been in business over the past 25 years).

In S, Kinsey investigates a cold case. A woman hires her to investigate her mother’s disappearance in 1953. The story flips between Kinsey’s 1987 world and flashbacks to 1953 (various characters). Since Kinsey is not a party to the 1953 flashbacks, the reader always knows more than she does. I’m not thrilled with this device. In a detective story, I think it’s best if we stick to the detective’s PoV—this is the only way the reader can play along (and isn’t that what a detective story is about?). Also not thrilled with the ending; while not quite a deus ex machina, the baddy turns out to be peripheral character (it is foreshadowed, but it still seems lame). It’s a soap opera ending, the easy way out. Overall, the story was kind of plodding. The flashbacks contributed to this, I think, but also the overly long description. Everything was described in great detail! (Were the earlier books like this? I don’t remember.) Too much. And I like description.

Random tidbit: Grafton’s pet word is “ease”: people are forever easing onto stools, cars easing out of driveways, etc. etc.

13: Dispatches from the Edge

Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival by Anderson Cooper

Dispatches From the Edge

Ok, so it’s no surprise I read this. We all know I heart AC. (I just know if I’d have been rich & gone to Yale, we’d have met in the dorms and become BFFs! As it is, I’ll have to make do with those twinny moments when he says the exact thing I just said except he’s on TV and people actually hear him.) The only surprising thing is how long it took me to buy it. I meant to buy it as soon as it came out in paperback, but then I got distracted with all that directed-reading reading and visits from-and-to friends & rellies over the summer. All good, but how could I have forgotten AC? And then on a bookstore foray I saw it. eep! Immediately book was purchased so it could be read on vacay. Yes! I bought a full price new book! Second one this year! Possibly a record! (j/k)

So anyway… if you’ve read his Details columns or his posts on the AC360 Blog, then the writing style will be familiar. If you like it there, you’ll like it here and vice versa. I like the contrast of the simplicity of the writing with the chaoticness of the situations, but I realize that won’t work for everyone. When I looked at the Amazon reviews, I noticed some people think his emotions seem too subdued, but I disagree, because that uber-quiet/shutdown reaction is exactly how I get when I’m really upset (if I’m ranting/raving, I’m fine). The other nitpick is (of course) that he doesn’t discuss his present day personal life. I think those people are missing the point of this book, which is really about how his career has been a way for him to deal with the deaths of his father (when he was 10) and his brother (when he was 21). So the book flips back-and-forth between his present-day reporting and the past, making connections between the two. It’s a memoir, not an autobiography. Memoir doesn’t have to be all-inclusive; it can focus on certain events or elements of one’s life.

Because AC was only 10 when his father died, his love for his dad is that of a 10-year-old—uncomplicated by adult conflict—and it makes you think about both the good and the bad of that. Because we’re so close in age and I also have one brother (I know he has two much older half-brothers, but they aren’t mentioned here), it was hard not to do the “what if…” thing. Without the extraordinary circumstances of the deaths of two of his immediate family, he probably wouldn’t have obtained a fake press pass and headed off to a war zone. In fact, he could have led a very comfortable life without doing much of anything (or at least anything of substance—as we know many children of the very rich do). But I think not only was he on a quest to make sense of his losses, but he also had an awareness of mortality that most people in their twenties don’t have, since there was a history of early deaths on his father’s side of the family. So that probably pushed him to take more risks than the average person—and also to not wait till some magical future date to do the things he wants to (like so many people do).