Monday, March 02, 2015

Taking a Breather

I need a break from blogging. Ironically, I’ve been reading a lot, so it’s not the fault of the books (or the TV). I am just finding it harder and harder to come up with anything new to say. Also, for a while I’ve been chafing under the (self-imposed) constraints of blogging: try to stick with newer books, don’t read too many in a row by the same author, etc. But I don’t want to follow those rules right now. I just want to read what I want to read, and if I don’t have anything to say, I don’t want to get stressed about it. I can't imagine that this break will last forever. I'm sure I'll be back before long.

Meanwhile, I still need to keep a list of everything I read. I’ve been doing that since I was a teenager and I don’t intend to stop now. I think I will keep a list going here and if I do want to say something about a book, I will. Old habits die hard, right? So here’s what I’ve been reading in the last few weeks.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty 

Rarely do I read two books by the same author within the same month (see above) but I was really in the mood for Moriarty’s light touch. This one was fun, too, though a lot like Big Little Lies, in that it deals with a serious issue in between the tupperware jokes.

The Arsonist by Sue Miller 

Sue Miller is reliably good and has been around a long time. This was better than The Senator’s Wife, which I read a few years ago.

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout 

Really good. And I hated Olive Kitteridge, in case you were wondering.

(Books 3-5, 2015)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

This is a sneaky book—but I mean that as a compliment. It’s got a girly cover and a breezy tone, and it purports to be about yummy mummies whose children attend the same elementary school in an affluent Australian suburb. It looks like a light fun read, and it is, until you realize that it’s also about domestic violence, and how it crops up where you never expect it and how easy it is for the abuse (and the abuser) to hide in plain sight. It’s also a very funny book, except when it makes you cry.

I have already said too much about the plot so I won’t go on. I do want to say that I really was impressed by Moriarty’s ability to hit the right note every single time. She could have gone wrong so many places, veering off into movie-of-the-week territory, or worse, trivializing the issues, but she avoided all these obstacles perfectly. Moriarty is often mentioned in the same breath as Jojo Moyes, another author who excels at giving us a fresh look at the lives of ordinary women, and for tackling difficult subjects with humor.

(Book 2, 2015)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Broken Harbor by Tana French

In Broken Harbor, by Tana French, Detective Michael Kennedy and his rookie partner investigate the murder of a family. Was the crime committed by a stranger? Or was it domestic violence? As she does in all her books, French handles the story of the murder and subsequent investigation with great skill and suspense. It’s the rest of the book that I’m not as sure about.

I’ve read two other books by French: The Likeness, which I loved, and Faithful Place, which I didn’t finish. Like these other books, Broken Harbor is set in Ireland, and features one of the detectives from the Dublin murder squad. I like the way French does this, setting all her novels within one police department but rotating the cops in charge of the investigation so that each book has a different protagonist. Some characters show up in more than one novel but others don’t. It’s a clever device that unifies her stories while keeping them fresh. It also lets you read them in any order.

My problems with Broken Harbor were the same ones I had with Faithful Place – both these books are overly long and digressive. In addition to crime fiction, French seems to want to write social commentary. This isn’t a new thing in crime fiction, where lots of writers use the genre to highlight issues such as poverty, domestic violence, racism, and class inequality. My complaint is more that French overdoes it. It’s one thing to seed an interesting story with astute observations about societal breakdown, for example, but French just goes on and on. Her issue of choice is the collapse of the Irish economy. While she does eventually manage to tie this topic into the mystery itself, she still spends way too much time on it, to the detriment of the forward motion of the mystery.

So why did I finish Broken Harbor when I couldn’t finish Faithful Place? I think because I listened to the audiobook version of Broken Harbor. I definitely experience a book differently when I listen to it vs. when I read it. Am I a less critical, more patient listener than I am reader? I’m not sure.

Here’s another thought (added later): In some ways French’s books have more in common with the recent spate of noir-ish television dramas than they have with traditional mysteries, especially the shows that originate in the UK and Scandinavia. I’m thinking here about examples such as The Fall, Broadchurch, and The Killing; all of these are relatively slow moving in the plot resolution department, but rich in detail about society and families. Even French’s approach of featuring a murder squad rather than a single detective feels more like a TV series with an ensemble cast than it does a traditional mystery series. But readers and viewers have different expectations about pacing, and some narrative devices work well in one arena but not in the other. I’ve just given myself a lot to think about here, including the fact that by listening to the audiobook version of this, I had a kind of hybrid experience.

(Book 1, 2015)

Thursday, January 08, 2015

2014 Year End Wrap-up

I read several really good books this year. In no particular order I want to mention these as among the best:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Alena by Rachel Pastan

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Wake by Anna Hope

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

Last year I wrote a long excuse about how much my television watching was interfering with my reading. I won’t bother you again with that line of thinking, but I will say that the situation was much the same this year. I read even fewer books but watched a lot of good TV.

In an effort to get my reading back up close to earlier levels, I signed up for the Goodreads 2015 challenge and promised to read 35 books in 2015. I plan to reach that goal by listening to more audiobooks. I had forgotten how much I like them for when I’m doing housework; they keep me going when I’m tempted to sneak off and watch some TV. I am almost finished listening to Broken Harbor by Tana French and my kitchen hasn’t been this clean in a long time.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

An Americanah is a Nigerian person who has lived abroad and has adopted American habits. Americanah, by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, tells the story of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who moves to the U.S. to attend college, and Obinze, Ifemelu’s friend who stays behind in Nigeria.

When Americanah opens, Ifemelu has been in the U.S. for more than ten years. She has made a career as a social critic: She writes a popular blog, gives lectures, and leads university seminars on race relations in America, as seen through the lens of a black African person. But she is restless and wants to return to Nigeria. Obinze, too, is emotionally adrift; after a brief stint living illegally in London, he has become a successful businessman in Lagos, but something is missing from his life.

The book moves back and forth between the past and the present as we watch Ifemelu and Obinze grow up together and fall in love, spend their years apart, then gradually become reunited upon Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria. Contrasts abound in this book: Life in Nigeria vs. life in the U.S. Ifemelu’s success in the U.S. vs. Obinze’s troubles in London. And most interesting of all, the experience of being a black African in the U.S. vs. the experience of being an African American.

Ifemelu provides a unique perspective on this last issue, especially. Her blog is called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. Author Adichie sprinkles Ifemelu’s blog posts throughout the novel. It’s a clever device that lets us learn from Ifemelu without feeling like the book is too didactic. Ifemelu’s voice is strong, and her warmth and humor belie her sometimes pointed indictments of white privilege. It was interesting to read this book now. As conversations about race swirl around me I keep wanting to respond “So Ifemelu says…” before remembering that she is just a character in a novel.

Sometimes a book is so good that you stay up all night reading because you can’t put it down. The corollary to this is a book that is so good that you ration it out in tiny bites so that it lasts as long as possible. Americanah falls into the second category; I started reading this in September and made it last three months. Even now I’m sorry that it’s over.

(Book 25, 2014)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Bread and Butter by Michelle Wildgen

This book was long on description and short on plot. Author Michelle Wildgen has obviously spent years working in the food industry and her expertise shows. And this story, about a guy who opens his own restaurant, could probably provide a blueprint for anyone interested in doing the same. She describes in great detail the steps involved in developing a new dish, managing the waitstaff, and choosing the right d├ęcor. The problem is, I can’t imagine these processes are compelling to anyone outside of a narrow group of foodies and restaurant aficionados; I certainly struggled to maintain my interest and I like to cook and eat.

Wildgen hangs pages and pages of luscious descriptions of food onto the thinnest plot framework imaginable: a rivalry between the young restaurateur and his older brothers, who own a different restaurant. Dramatic tension centers around issues like whether or not the younger brother is stealing the older brothers’ pastry chef. I’m not trying to be flip here, but I really would have liked this book better if someone had murdered the pastry chef and hid his body in the walk-in amid all those vegetables Wildgen so lovingly describes.

(Book 24, 2014)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation is the first book in The Southern Reach trilogy and tells the story of the 12th expedition to Area X. Area X is the (fictional) site of a mysterious ecological disaster, located somewhere in the southern U.S. It has been closed for over 30 years at the time this book opens, and access is restricted to occasional groups of scientists. The Southern Reach is the name of the quasi-governmental/military authority that controls Area X. Expeditions there are fraught with danger; several explorers have been lost, and those who return are physically or emotionally damaged. Do we think Expedition 12 will go any better? Well, with their story entitled Annihilation, what do you think?

There’s a lot to like here for fans of the TV show Lost, and those who like to read post-apocalyptic fiction. There’s a creepy monster, and some emotional baggage with the biologist, who has an interesting reason for going on this mission. There are double-crosses, and mysterious lights and noises, and a good old-fashioned shoot-out. While you could argue that VanderMeer is just checking off boxes on a list of sci-fi/horror tropes, he uses them in an interesting way, and I was entertained. I also applaud him for making the Expedition 12 scientists all female. It would have been so easy to make them all male, or to include one token female, but he made this interesting choice and I noticed.

Here’s my problem: why haven’t I read the two subsequent volumes of the trilogy: Authority and Acceptance? I finished this months ago, and put off writing about it until I could write about all three at once, but here I am, having not quite ever gotten round to the remaining two books. I think it’s because I feel a tiny bit manipulated, as if this whole thing smacks just a bit too much of clever marketing. Annihiliation is short, at 208 pages (though the two following books are longer). All three were released within 7 months of one another, so VanderMeer clearly had the sequels well in hand when the first was released. Why not wait and release them together as one long book? Why make me pay for three books instead of one?

Well, why did Peter Jackson carve The Hobbit up into three movies? Why did someone decide to release the Hunger Games and the Twilight trilogies as four movies? Let’s squeeze as much revenue out of these properties as we can, folks. VanderMeer sold the Annihilation movie rights for a “sizable” amount, according to the Deadline Hollywood website. Who wants to bet that the remaining two books will get nice deals, too, and Acceptance will be released as two films?  If these novels had been released as one book, could VanderMeer have only sold the rights once? (I am just asking and admit to knowing nothing about how these deals work.)

It’s the combination of all these factors (the on-trend post-apocalyptic theme, the trilogy, the movie rights) that has me feeling a little bit like a pawn in someone’s media marketing chess game. It’s nice to see an author making some money and I don’t begrudge VanderMeer his opportunity to do so. I know he’s been writing sci-fi for a while and has paid his dues. It just all seems so… calculating. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

I already feel marketed-to in so many areas of my life (what TV shows I watch, products I buy, websites I visit); I don't like it when the same feeling invades my reading. It even makes me worry that VanderMeer’s choice of female protagonists was somehow motivated by a reading survey that indicated that large numbers of female readers enjoy post-apocalyptic trilogies.

Look, I know I sound like @GuyinyourMFA, whose hilarious tweets poke fun at the idea that Literature (with a capital L) can only be written with great suffering and angst, and that marketing is anathema to Art. I don’t mean that. But clearly something in me is resisting the call to participate in VanderMeer’s cunning plan. If it is a cunning plan. Which I think it is.

(Newsflash! Just in time for the  holidays! Farrar Straus Giroux releases Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy, all in one volume. Could the timing be any better?)

(Book 23, 2014)