Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Our end-of-the-year book club read was chosen from a selection of books from "best of 2012" lists. The book is a first-person narrative covering a year or so in the life of a 12-year-old girl in present day(ish) San Diego, as the axis of the earth suddenly and catastrophically slows.

I finished this book about a week ago, and I'm still not entirely sure what I think overall, but here are a few of my assessments:

1) The book is enjoyable. I found it an easy and interesting read from start to finish. I wouldn't say it was a very deep book, though. The writing and storytelling were straightforward. There wasn't much philosophizing. I liked the book, but I don't know that I'll be thinking about it for months to come.

2) This is not a science fiction book. Although the author clearly thought through the implications of the earth slowing, if you're looking for a book that gets into the hard science of it all you will be disappointed. In fact, I think that's one of the most interesting things about the book. The premise is apocalyptic and science-fictiony, but that's not what the book is. It's just about a 12-year-old girl, experiencing the shifting friendships and crushes and parental dynamics of a 12-year-old girl...just in an apocalyptic context. And the apocalypse in this case is slow (or at least relatively slow). The earth slows gradually, and the effects happen gradually, and much of life goes on as usual, with the changes manifesting themselves incrementally. This is what I found most interesting and most compelling about the storytelling.

3) I found the voice believable. I could see a lot of my younger self in the protagonist, and she seemed like a believably-drawn 12-year-old. It was also fun to see the novel set in southern California. It was very easy for me to picture. A lot of what I've read set in California is not set in the middle-class suburban neighborhoods I know, and I enjoyed the familiarity.

Overall, I wouldn't say this is my favorite of the books I've read for our book club, or the most discussion-worthy (although we haven't discussed it yet, and we always find things to discuss), but it was an interesting read and I enjoyed reading it.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

I've always stayed away from comics and graphic novels, other than once, when I tried (and failed) to read Persepolis. I would never actually say that anything written in comic form is an inferior form of literature, but for a long time I probably thought that. When you're young, you graduate from picture books. You get the impression that more sophisticated readers don't need pictures as props.

In a way, I think I read this book to help me get over that. Like I said, I once tried to read Persepolis. It was, you know, critically acclaimed, and powerful, and moving, and all of that, and I thought I should. But I just couldn't get into it. I found that I was reading it, I was taking it in, but I wasn't immersed in it. I couldn't get myself immersed in it. This sounds funny, but I didn't really know how to read and appreciate graphic novels, and I needed someone to explain it to me before I could.

And for filling that purpose, I loved this book. It's a comic about comics. It covers history, literary theory, creative process, and it's really very smart. But what convinced me was not what he said. It's the way Scott McCloud used the medium to say it. I got what he was telling me because of the way he was telling me, through the juxtaposition of images and words, and the way the images flowed from one to the other, and I understood that I gleaned something very different from the experience than I would have gleaned from a words-only book, no matter how conversational and witty the words might have been.

I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who already enjoys graphic novels or comics, but especially to anyone who has never really understood or appreciated the medium. I'm not rushing out to my nearest comic book store, but I've since read a couple very good graphic novels, as good as any book I read this past year, and I intend not to completely overlook graphic novels in the future.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I was inspired to read this novel after listening to a discussion about the movie on one of my favorite podcasts. I had known nothing about Cloud Atlas except that it was being made into a movie, but from the podcast learned about its structure, and that it was probably better than the movie, and was intrigued enough to download it onto my Kindle.

And then about a third of the way in I finally figured out that I'd downloaded The Cloud Atlas - completely different book. Oops. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't what I'd been wanting to read and I had to go out and get the right book. I still haven't finished The Cloud Atlas, but I just finished the book I originally intended to read, and it left me feeling like I needed to process it a bit more, which can be a good or a bad thing.

After a night's sleep, I'm ready to give my personal assessment.

First a quick overview. Cloud Atlas is structured as six embedded novellas, with each story half-told until you reach the sixth story at the center, after which you proceed back through the other five stories and reach the conclusion of the first story at the very end: 1 2 3 4 5 6 5 4 3 2 1. The stories proceed forward (and then backward) through time, from a 19th century ship traveling the Pacific, to a postapocalyptic Hawaii some hundreds of years in the future, and each is written in a very different voice, and even style. On the surface the stories are mostly unconnected, except that each is also embedded literally in the other. For example, the first story is written as a journal, which is found and read by the main character of the second story. The fourth story becomes a movie seen by the main character of the fifth story.

I actually quite enjoyed the book. At first it felt a bit like a "should read." I found the writing a bit difficult, and it was hard for me to really invest in the first couple stories (and when you know that these are the stories the book will end with, it makes it hard to stay motivated to continue to the end). But the further I got, the more I enjoyed the book, and the more invested I became. And while I enjoyed some of the stories more than others, by the time I finished the sixth and began proceeding backwards, I actually found myself looking forward to the reading the second half of even the stories I hadn't cared for. I felt as though each story colored the stories that came before, and I returned to each story with a different eye than my first time around.

And I was impressed with the writing. Sometimes I have trouble with very intelligently and cleverly written books because they feel pretentious or unreal to me, but as difficult as I sometimes found the prose in Cloud Atlas, I didn't get mired down in pretentiousness. Mitchell brilliantly captures six very different voices written in six very different genres. It's clearly all coming from the same pen, but each story is nevertheless impressively distinct.

My main complaint about the book is that I think leads a reader to believe it is doing more than it actually is. When I finished the book, I felt like I needed to go digest it, look for the connecting threads that I had missed, to figure out what it all meant. I'd just been taken for a ride, and I'd thoroughly enjoyed the ride, but I felt like there was more than just a ride (albeit an intelligent and fascinating and thought-provoking ride). The problem is, I'm not sure there is more, or at least much more, than what I got on the first pass. Either that, or the meaning is so abstruse or deeply buried as to be invisible, or not worth the work it would take to uncover it.

In short, this is no beach read, but it's also not a slog (although it might feel that way at first). It's definitely not for everyone, but as long as you don't hold out for a grand, startling connection between the stories, and instead just let yourself be swept along, I think it's worth reading.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

I picked this book up for 50%, maybe even 75% off at a Borders clearance, because no one else had claimed it yet, because it looked possibly important, because Bernard Malamud is an author I haven't read but feel like I ought, although I never felt like I ought to until I actually saw this book on the emptying shelves. It's a book that might very well have languished on my bookshelf thereafter, unread and gathering dust, but for after immersing myself in graphic novels and Stephen King, I felt the need for something that made me feel like I was reading literature that made me work. I don't necessarily believe that good literature has to make you work (or feel like you're working for it). I don't believe you need to run ten miles a day to stay healthy. But sometimes I like to get in a good ten mile run, and sometimes I like a bit of a reading workout.

That said, The Assistant wasn't exactly a slog. Actually, I thought it was a very real, very beautifully written book, and by beautifully written I guess I mean it didn't seem to try very hard to be beautifully written, and still managed to capture the inner and outer lives of its characters in all their complexity.

The story is fairly simple, covering a few months, maybe as long as a year, in the life of a Jewish immigrant running a small, slowly-failing grocery in a neighborhood of New York. A young Italian-American comes into the picture, asking to work as an assistant in the grocery, hoping to get a jump start on his life. The story revolves around both the inner lives of all four characters, and the relationships among them, and is incredibly rich and straightforward, and sad. I don't know that Malamud put great effort, or at least not obvious effort, into painting the scenery, but every time I picked up the book I felt like I could see the grocery, the small apartments above it, the street outside, the faces of the major and minor characters. I felt like I lived there momentarily.

The story was, in the end, more tragic than I had expected or hoped, but still did not end on a bitter note and leave me depressed. I found myself unable to draw a quick conclusion about whether I liked the book once I finished. This usually means I will decide I liked the book, because it means it left a mark.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Normally I would not be drawn to a book about baseball and statistics. I like statistics well enough, but I tend to shy away from books about math and statistics partly because I spend all of my working day thinking about such things. And baseball has just never really grabbed my attention.

But I heard really great things about the movie, and when I failed to find anyone to see it with me,* I thought I'd read the book. About which I'd also heard really great things.

I was a bit surprised how quickly I got sucked in. Yes it's about statistics, and baseball, and mostly baseball statistics. But it's also about ideas that extend well beyond baseball, and it's even more about people. The book is about Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's, and how he strategized to outsmart big money teams like the Yankees by relying on statistics to draft players no one else would have given a second thought. And the book is also about some of those players and the chance they got, and about Billy himself and how his dreams reflect his own failed experience in the major leagues, and about the fans outside the establishment who changed the face of baseball statistics out of little more than a passion for the game.

It kind of made me want to love baseball.

I don't think I'm going to go out of my way to watch a game anytime soon, but I do feel like I have a better appreciation of the sport itself having read this book, and I'm willing not to dismiss it offhand. And whether or not you like baseball. I would really recommend this book. If you think it sounds interesting, you'll probably love it. If you don't think it sounds particularly interesting, you might be surprised. There's a fair amount of information, but also a fair amount of narrative, and it's pretty compelling.

* Meaning I suggested it once to a friend who immediately suggested three different movies, after which I didn't bother suggesting it again to anyone. So I can't really say I tried all that hard.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Speak is the story of a teenage girl (and I think it was written around the time my sister was in high school, so it's not quite my era but it's also not completely new) who experienced something over the summer that turns friends against her as she enters high school, and causes her to pull inside herself, away from her friends, away from her parents, away from most of her teachers. She doesn't stop speaking entirely, but she avoids it as much as possible, and for a long time there are few people to even notice.

I don't know if there was supposed to be a Big Reveal about why the main character of Speak (Melinda) has essentially stopped talking to her parents, friends, and teachers. If so, I guessed it long before the reveal was made, and so as awful as it was, it carried no huge emotional weight that I hadn't already felt as I read the chapters leading up to the reveal. I think the book is better for that, though. It's not meant to shock or appall, but to put the reader in the head of the teenage character and let the reader experience what she is experiencing. Anything Laurie Anderson fails to tell you until the right time is analogous to Melinda's avoidance of confronting the reasons for her own depression.

Speak is not a happy book, but it's also not an unhappy book. It's also by no means perfect, but it feels believable enough, and Melinda's voice feels real. The story drew me in, and as dark and difficult as it was to see the the character's story through the screen of her depression, the entire book is peppered with hopeful moments. It's very much a YA book, meant to appeal to a young adult audience, and it feels enough like a Big Issue book that I don't really feel the need to go read anything else by Laurie Halse Anderson. With Big Issues authors (like Jodi Picoult, for example) I can let them pull it off once before it starts to lose impact. But this book had impact. I wouldn't recommend it universally, but if you think it sounds worth reading, it probably is.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

When I was in junior high or thereabouts I loved Agatha Christie mysteries. The local library had a pretty extensive collection, and I read half a dozen or more before my interest waned and I moved on to other novels. I preferred Miss Marple to Hercule Poirot, though that was mostly because I read two Miss Marple novels before I read a single Poirot novel, which bred familiarity. And because I didn't know how to pronounce Hercule (Her-cyool? Her-cyool-ee? or something more French-sounding?). My favorite, though, was And Then There were None, and I practically begged to stay home and babysit my sister while my family went to a Dodgers game (not a hard sell) just so I could rent and watch the 1945 movie.

I have lots of fond Agatha Christie memories, and I've often wondered if her novels would hold up for me now that I'm older. So I threw a novel I'd never gotten around to into the mix when I was guest book-chooser for my book club, and when another one of my selections won the vote, I decided to read it anyway.

Maybe I should have chosen another novel, because although I'd never read Murder on the Orient Express, I had seen the movie, and I'd forgotten enough of the plot to enjoy the story but not enough that I didn't predict/remember the solution to the mystery before we got there. (I actually like being able to guess the ending of a mystery before the actual end, as long as it's not too obvious, because it makes me feel smart, but I also like to guess it on my own, not with the help of subconscious memories.)

In spite of that, I thoroughly enjoyed the read. It was fast, it was fun, and it felt like watching an old Hollywood movie (again, my memory may have been intruding). I'm not a big mystery reader, but Agatha Christie tells a good story. Had I been traveling, it would have been a good travel book. I don't know that I'm dying to clean out the shelves of the library again, but maybe I'll pick up another next time I have a long flight ahead of me.