Sunday, February 07, 2016

HOUSE OF DAY, HOUSE OF NIGHT






House of Day, House of Night, Olga Tokarczuk, Granta Publications, 2002, 293 pp (translated from the Polish by Antomia Lloyd-Jones, originally published in Poland, 1998.)
 
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: Nowa Ruda is a small town in Silesia, an area that has been a part of Poland, Germany, and the former Czechoslovakia in the past. When the narrator moves into the area, she discovers everyone-and everything-has its own story. With the help of Marta, her enigmatic neighbor, the narrator accumulates these stories, tracing the history of Nowa Ruda from the founding of the town to the lives of its saints, from the caller who wins the radio quiz every day to the tale of the man who causes international tension when he dies on the border, one leg on the Polish side, the other on the Czech side. Each of the stories represents a brick and they interlock to reveal the immense monument that is the town. What emerges is the message that the history of any place--no matter how humble--is limitless, that by describing or digging at the roots of a life, a house, or a neighborhood, one can see all the connections, not only with one's self and one's dreams but also with all of the universe.
 
 
My Review:
The Tiny Book Club chose this. We are three women of a certain age. Two were raised Jewish, one of whom is a descendant of Polish Holocaust survivors, gay, well-read, and spends every summer returning to Poland to further the reconciliation of Jewish and non-Jewish Poles. The other is also well-read and has a deep understanding of literature. She is an intellectual. The third was raised Christian in America, the daughter of third generation German Lutheran immigrants. We decided to read some Polish literature and this is our first pick.
 
We have not met yet to discuss, due to winter colds, travels, and other things which could not be helped. I am bursting with discussion questions and topics, so hopefully soon!
  
Olga Tokarczuk, born in Poland in 1962, is both critically acclaimed and commercially successful in her native country. In this novel, her style is one of crystalline fragments and deep human insight steeped in mythical structures and dotted with recipes for cooking wild mushrooms.
 
She creates a mosaic of a town, Nowa Ruda. It is one of those little Eastern European towns kicked unmercifully from one nation to another due to wars and the redefined borders made by peace negotiations. In fact, it lies close to the current Polish/former Czechoslovakian border. When a man dies with the halves of his body splayed across that border, tension ensues.
 
The narrator and her husband moved to Nowa Ruda because relocation policies had made land and houses cheap there. You don't learn much about them but the sense of dislocation and upheaval hangs around like a murky fog. Besides housekeeping, the woman writes so she sets about collecting stories about the town, its inhabitants, history and inevitably its myths. Some of these people are like those found in fairy tales.
 
Dreams, so many dreams, pepper the narrative. Weather is a huge influence. Marta, the woman's neighbor, is a repository of the town's history. She is an archetypal ghostlike female whose rare utterances are usually non-sequitur. She is also the narrator's only close friend.
 
I admit that reading American, Canadian, and British contemporary fiction is fairly effortless compared to such a book as this. Of course, each country has its depths of history, oddities, and other pathos, but it is not written about much or it comes in more familiar packages. That probably has to do with our relatively longer history of stability as well as the expectations of the book market.
 
Reading a book like House of Day, House of Night, was not only enlightening as to how other peoples live. It had the effect on me of causing an increased observation of people in my own life, an awareness of things we just don't usually talk about. In a spirit of tolerance and compassion, Olga Tokarczuk wrote a very human book that reveals the underlying dreams and spirits dwelling in human hearts.
 
 
(House of Day, House of Night is available through independent bookstores at a rather high price. It is not easy to find in libraries. I found my copy through a used bookseller on-line in paperback for a reasonable price.)

Friday, February 05, 2016

FEBRUARY READING GROUP UPDATE









Since my cataract surgery last year, I have to use reading glasses when I read. I keep leaving them in odd places and then sitting or stepping on them and breaking them. Just a little sharing as to why I picked this image today!

February is short and my reading group line up is light. But here it is:


Laura's Group:
 
 
One Book at a Time:


Bookie Babes:


Have you read any of these? What are your reading groups reading this month?
 
 
 

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

THE STORIED LIFE OF A J FIKRY






The Storied Life of A J Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin, Algonquin Books, 2014, 243 pp
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: A. J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island--from Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who’s always felt kindly toward Fikry; from Ismay, his sister-in-law who is hell-bent on saving him from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.’s bad attitude. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.
 
My Review:
I read this for one of my reading groups. It is one of those novels destined to be read by reading groups composed of women. Charming, heartwarming, set in a tiny bookstore on an island in New England with quirky characters, an unusual romance, and a bit of mystery. Oh, and an abandoned child. I read it in one day.
 
The author has written several novels for both adults and young adults as well as a screenplay. She can write, she can plot. It is just that for me, while I was entertained well enough, I was constantly aware of her recycling of familiar tropes, incidents, and social issues.
  
I don't begrudge women who like to read comforting stories of how the romantic human heart can be transformed after personal tragedy. We all have tragedies and we all wish to overcome the damage. We certainly all need comforting and most of us could use more romance. 
 
So I appreciate what the author did. I am happy if her bestseller brought her some undoubtedly much needed income. But I need more depth, more grit, and more artistry in the novels I read.  

Monday, February 01, 2016

BOOKS READ IN JANUARY









Since we don't have snow in Los Angeles, we don't get to have snowdrops. I always loved them as a harbinger of spring when I was growing up in New Jersey. Of course, this morning, after a lovely warm and sunny week and a big rain storm yesterday, it is only 53 degrees here today with wind. It is still winter and tomorrow is Ground Hog Day!

I read 11 books in January. Not bad seeing as how I took a week off to visit my grandkids. Somehow I hardly read at all when I am with them.

Stats: 11 books read. 10 fiction; 1 non-fiction. 7 by women. 2 translated. 1 reread. 1 children's book, which was also fantasy. 4 from my 1962 Big Fat Reading Project list. 1 speculative.
Favorites: The Paying Guests, Beside Myself, Purity. 
Least favorite: The Storied Life of A J Fikry


















Not at Indiebound, Open Road has an eBook










How was your reading in January? Any books I should be sure not to miss?




Saturday, January 30, 2016

WEST OF SUNSET






West of Sunset, Stewart O'Nan, Viking, 2015, 289 pp
 
 
 
Summary from Indiebound: In 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a troubled, uncertain man whose literary success was long over. In poor health, with his wife consigned to an asylum and his finances in ruin, he struggled to make a new start as a screenwriter in Hollywood.
Those last three years of Fitzgerald's life are the focus of Stewart O Nan's graceful and elegiac novel "West of Sunset." With flashbacks to Fitzgerald's glamorous Jazz Age past, the story follows him as he arrives on the MGM lot, falls in love with brassy gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, begins work on"The Last Tycoon," and tries to maintain a semblance of family life with the absent Zelda and their daughter, Scottie. The Golden Age of Hollywood is brought vividly to life through the novel's romantic cast of characters, from Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway to Humphrey Bogart. Written with striking grace and subtlety, this is a wise and intimate portrait of a man trying his best to hold together a world that's flying apart.
 
My Review: I reviewed this book for an on-line publication last March. I was taking a break from blogging at that time, but it came out in paperback in December, 2015 and was on my list of favorite reads for last year. I am posting the review here now.
 
What a sad story. A fictionalized tale of F Scott Fitzgerald's last years, it is even sadder than that author's fiction. Stewart O'Nan is masterful at writing about sad, tortured, sometimes broken people. In an interview on Other People, he says he wanted to get inside the facts presented in Fitzgerald biographies and create the actual incidents the man lived through in those last years of his life, so of course it had to be a novel.
 
We read about the writer's visits with his wife Zelda, who by then is institutionalized and undergoing the barbaric treatments used in the 1930s: electric shock, insulin shock, etc. Sometimes he takes Zelda and their daughter Scottie, by then in boarding school, on week long vacations. Though their love and marriage and family are basically a shambles, they all try desperately and awkwardly but unsuccessfully to be there for each other. Heartbreaking.
 
But Scott, as he is called in the novel, is the one who must pay for it all. His career as a novelist is also over, his royalties a mere pittance, so he takes a job in Hollywood as a screenwriter in the studio system. The indignities match the pay in their enormity. Scott is an alcoholic though he manages to stay off the booze long enough to write in a tiny office five days a week from nine to six. But there are binges.
 
Still longing for romance, he falls in love with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. Still hoping for another bestseller, he begins a novel, The Last Tycoon. It is all a race against disaster and annihilation; a race he loses at the age of 46.
 
Though O'Nan has never lived in Los Angeles, he captures the city and Hollywood at the end of the 1930s. He includes several celebrities in the story: Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Humphrey Bogart, and more, in their interactions with Fitzgerald. This novel has the zing of a Fitzgerald creation layered over the crushing despair of a man who was once the highest paid and most famous writer in America.
 
From the little I have read about Scott and Zelda, I had formed the opinion that Fitzgerald was a despicable husband who crushed Zelda's creativity and free spirit. In West of Sunset, he comes across as a man burdened with a mentally ill wife. He loved her once, the magic is so over, but he tries to do right by her and Scottie. The truth? Who knows for sure? The novel is possibly as close to Fitzgerald's truth as we will get.
 
 
(West of Sunset is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)
 
 
 
 
 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

CLOUD ATLAS






Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell, Random House, 2004, 509 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Cloud Atlas begins in 1850 with Adam Ewing, an American notary voyaging from the Chatham Isles to his home in California. Along the way, Ewing is befriended by a physician, Dr. Goose, who begins to treat him for a rare species of brain parasite. . . . Abruptly, the action jumps to Belgium in 1931, where Robert Frobisher, a disinherited bisexual composer, contrives his way into the household of an infirm maestro who has a beguiling wife and a nubile daughter. . . . From there we jump to the West Coast in the 1970s and a troubled reporter named Luisa Rey, who stumbles upon a web of corporate greed and murder that threatens to claim her life. . . . And onward, with dazzling virtuosity, to an inglorious present-day England; to a Korean superstate of the near future where neocapitalism has run amok; and, finally, to a postapocalyptic Iron Age Hawaii in the last days of history.

But the story doesn’t end even there. The narrative then boomerangs back through centuries and space, returning by the same route, in reverse, to its starting point. Along the way, Mitchell reveals how his disparate characters connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.


My Review:
Here is the final installment in my year end David Mitchell readathon. It was my second reading of Cloud Atlas and three factors made it more enjoyable than the first.

   
1) I have since seen the movie. This is a case where the movie, for me, was better than the book. Suddenly I understood what Mitchell was attempting to do with this novel. Also for me, who make mental pictures as I read, it gave me better visuals than my own. The casting is brilliant, especially Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, who were ever present in my mind as I reread.

2) Because I have now read Mitchell's two earlier novels (Ghostwritten and Number9Dream), I have a grip on the author's themes and writing style. When I read Cloud Atlas the first time I was frankly unprepared to appreciate it.

3) I never used to pay much attention to structure when reading fiction but in the three years since my first reading, I have learned to notice how different authors put their stories together. The movie reworked the structure into a more linear tale; the book is anything but.

So this time I saw why some sections end mid-incident (or even mid-sentence in one case) and take up in a later section right where it left off earlier. It was a though I had a map. Therefore I was able to appreciate the several different styles and voices in which Mitchell wrote, a true tour de force!

I enjoyed my reading this time whereas I mostly felt lost before. Having read Ghostwritten I was prepared for the author's worldview of interconnectedness and of how events of the present trace back to occurrences in the past and foreshadow the future. I liked the aspect of a big novel of ideas encompassing both the human comedy and the tragedies of human foibles.

I assume that Cloud Atlas is both Mitchell's breakout novel and his most well-known. I'm not even halfway through his seven novels but I predict this is not going to be my best-loved one. So far, Ghostwritten  holds that honor. I am in a fever of anticipation for the next four novels and when I finished this one I wanted to pick up the next one immediately. Alas, the holiday week was over and I had to move on, but I am determined to read them all by the end of the year.


(Cloud Atlas is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)  

Monday, January 25, 2016

NUMBER9DREAM







Number9Dream, David Mitchell, Random House, 2001, 400 pp
 
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: David Mitchell follows his eerily precocious, globe-striding first novel, Ghostwritten, with a work that is in its way even more ambitious. In outward form, number9dream is a Dickensian coming-of-age journey: Young dreamer Eiji Miyake, from remote rural Japan, thrust out on his own by his sister’s death and his mother’s breakdown, comes to Tokyo in pursuit of the father who abandoned him. Stumbling around this strange, awesome city, he trips over and crosses—through a hidden destiny or just monstrously bad luck—a number of its secret power centers. Suddenly, the riddle of his father’s identity becomes just one of the increasingly urgent questions Eiji must answer. Why is the line between the world of his experiences and the world of his dreams so blurry? Why do so many horrible things keep happening to him? What is it about the number 9? To answer these questions, and ultimately to come to terms with his inheritance, Eiji must somehow acquire an insight into the workings of history and fate that would be rare in anyone, much less in a boy from out of town with a price on his head and less than the cost of a Beatles disc to his name.
 
 
My Review:
This was the second novel in my year end David Mitchell readathon and is the second novel he published. I went into it having read no reviews of it, therefore having no preconceived notions except excited anticipation because of how much I admired Ghostwritten.
 
Eiji Miyake is a young man who has left the tiny Japanese village where he grew up to go in search of the father he has never met. He is 20 years old but seems younger, probably due to his limited experience of city life. The reader soon learns that he is a twin, that he lost his twin sister in a tragedy, and that his mother was never married but is in fact an alcoholic who left the twins to be raised by their grandmother. Eiji may not have worldly experience but most of his life so far has been full of deep sorrows.
 
Now that is a perfect set up for a coming-of-age story built around a quest for a missing parent. Eiji is also a budding guitarist with a lively imagination. His first stake-out, across from an office tower where his father's business is located is so riddled with imaginative scenes but is such a failed enterprise, I feared for his safety and his mind.
 
But Eiji is a plucky if hapless lad, he is consumed by his quest, and pretty soon I realized his underlying strength was going to see him through all the horrific things that happen to him. He is a combination of Holden Caufield, David Copperfield, Murikami's Kafka, and almost every one of Neal Stephenson's early heroes.
 
One additional but crucial plot point is Eiji's love of music: jazz and John Lennon to be exact. This is where the dreams come in. The novel's title is also the name of a John Lennon song. There are nine chapters. There are countless dreams.
 
Though this novel is centered on one character, as opposed to the many protagonists of Ghostwritten, though it follows a start to finish narrative arc, it is still an elaborate puzzle covering philosophical and societal themes, not to mention a poignant love story.

I was captivated on every page. Some parts were confusing but the story never sagged and I felt securely in the hands of a trustworthy spinner of tales. I finished the book eager to begin my rereading of Mitchell's third novel, Cloud Atlas.
 
 
Number9Dream is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)