Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Book #58: The Swan Thieves

Title: The Swan Thieves
Author: Elizabeth Kostova

I just headed over to amazon to pick up a picture for this review, and I was dreading the act of clicking on The Swan Thieves link, because I didn't want to see how many stars readers had given the book. You see, The Swan Thieves (like her previous book, The Historian) is one of those novels that is so gripping that I want to stand on street corners and press copies of it into the hands of passersby. It's 600 pages long. I started the book on Sunday morning and finished it this afternoon. I know now that many Amazon readers considered it "boring" and "plodding" and "painful" but I found the novel as entertaining as John Grisham and as smart as Ian McEwan, with a liberal sprinkling of French Impressionism thrown in for good measure.

Robert Oliver, a renowned painter, ends up in a mental hospital after trying to destroy a painting in Washington DC's National Gallery. Andrew Marlowe, the psychiatrist assigned to Oliver's care, also happens to be a painter, and although he has a reputation for being able to "make a stone talk" he can't get Oliver to talk about why he landed in the hospital, so he has to do detective work, which leads him to North Carolina, Mexico, New York City and France, and into relationships with the women, living and long-dead, who shaped Oliver's consciousness.

Every few months, I come across a book that's so entertaining I don't want to put it down. Every few months I come across a book that's so smart, I'm impressed by the author's skills as a researcher and writer and want to soak up more of her genius. It's rare that the smart and the entertaining come together in the same book, but (for me, at least) The Swan Thieves is the best of both worlds.

Book #57: Solar

Title: Solar
Author: Ian McEwan

Whenever a new Ian McEwan book comes out, I look forward to taking the opportunity to sit down and just luxuriate in his writing. Oh my goodness, he is such a beautiful writer. And his characters. I could go on and on about how rich his characters are. They (to use a hackneyed cliche that Jasper Fforde has made a career out of twisting around) jump off the page. When I heard that Solar was being released, I was quick to reserve it at the library, and as soon as I got the "items you requested being held at the library" email showed up in my inbox, I rushed right down and picked up the book.

Solar focuses on the character of Michael Beard, who starts the novel as a short, paunchy fiftysomething who has gone through five wives and lived most of his adult life on the laurels of physics work he did in his early twenties. Brilliant enough work to earn him a Nobel Prize (although that may have been a mistake), but he hasn't done much with his life since then besides collect speaking fees and honoraria. Then something happens-- an accident, with fortuitous consequences for Beard. He has the chance to change his life for the better-- to become a better scientist and a better man. But can he overcome his nature?

Even though I love McEwan's writing and his characters, I've read quite a few of his novels that just don't come together for me as stories. I know that Amsterdam won the Booker Prize, but honestly, it wasn't my favorite of his books, and if it had been the first one I read, I doubt I would have been the kind of raving lunatic fan that I am right now. I felt the same way about On Chesil Beach, his most recent publication before the release of Solar. Solar is 304 pages long, and for the first 300, I was hopeful that it would be another Atonement or Saturday, books where the story is as memorable as the characters. It kept building and building and building. And then (spoiler alert), nothing happened. Just like the French films I attended at International Cinema back in college, the ending was nebulous. Could Beard escape this scrape like the others? If not, what would be the denouement of all of the forces of his life coming together in a small New Mexico town? C'mon McEwan, don't leave me hanging. If I'd gone into the book knowing that the end would be unknowable, then I think I would have finished the book feeling satisfied. But now, I feel like I had a great appetizer and a good dessert, but the host served up no main dish.

Book #56: The Happiness Project

Title: The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle and Generally Have More Fun
Author: Gretchen Rubin

It feels kind of mean-spirited to write a critical review of a book called The Happiness Project, which is the account of the year in Gretchen Rubin's life in which she decided to systematically do things to make herself happier. She set goals in areas of her life (like marriage, for example) that she wanted to improve, and then worked toward completing concrete objectives that would, at least in theory, make her feel happier or more competent in each area. Rubin devoted a month to various happiness-inducing subjects (like spirituality and parenthood) and often had three or four objectives to help her along the way.

I listened to the unabridged version of The Happiness Project on my iPod while running. I've gotten three books on my iPod since the beginning of the year, and it's interesting, because every one of them has been a nonfiction book, somewhat sort of a memoir but not exactly a memoir, read by the author. None is exactly what I'd call creative nonfiction. And while I think in my mind when I'm picking out books to order that those are exactly the type of book I'd like to listen to on my iPod, I also have the weird sense after listening to Rubin or Klosterman or Vowell speak directly into my brain for six or eight hours, that they're not a famous author out there somewhere, but more like a friend.

Or, in Rubin's case, a lot like a reflection of my own thoughts, which scares me a little bit. I resemble Gretchen Rubin in a lot of ways-- I'm goal-oriented, I like to write, I have little kids and a certain amount of disposable income and a desire for self-improvement. So in some ways, I feel like I don't really need to have my own Happiness Project (Rubin ends her book by showing people how to do their own projects), because I read about hers and think mine would play out similarly, especially if I had an advance and a book deal prodding me along. I also think she had some really great things to say about motivation and not gossiping and smiling when you don't feel like it and how it's harder to praise than to criticize (and man, that one got me straight in the heart). Overall, I liked the book.

But there was something I didn't like (sorry Gretchen, I can't wear the Pollyanna cap for the whole review). One of the first rules I learned as a writer was "show, don't tell" and Rubin tells and tells and tells. She talks about her goals and tells about how she accomplished them. There's a lot of "and then I did this, and then I did that..." and even though she talks a lot about her husband and daughters, they never really come alive to me in a way that makes me want to read more about them. It was almost like narrating a self-help book, and I think more showing and less telling would have made it a more interesting read.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Book #55: The Town that Food Saved

Title: The Town that Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food
Author: Ben Hewitt

When I read non-fiction books, I'm accustomed to two different kinds of approaches: 1) the memoir, where someone tells their insider experience with a subject (where they're expected to be biased), and 2) the journalist, where the person researches a subject and forms an opinion based on what they've found. Ben Hewitt seems to approach The Town that Food Saved from the point of view of a journalist (I believe that the book grew out of an article that he wrote for the now-defunct Gourmet magazine) but he's such an insider in the food community of Hardwick, Vermont, that it feels as if an outright memoir would have been a better approach.

Believe me, I don't broker any notions that Michael Pollan is impartial when he writes about food. Over the last few decades, he's written about little else, and his opinions come loud and clear both in what he says in his books, and his choice of subject material. On the other hand, he's not a peer with the slaughterhouse managers or restaurant chefs he interviews. Ben Hewitt is a peer with the small-time farmers living in and around Hardwick. In some ways, it feels as if Tom Stearns, the cheerleader of Hardwick's food movement, found out that Hewitt could write and appointed him to get the word out about what's going on in Northern Vermont. The story itself is pretty engaging, and I love some of the character profiles, but it feels weird to be writing journalistic character profiles about the guy who used to be your high school bus driver.

If you're really into reading books about sustainable communities or revamping the food system in America, then I think Hewitt's book is worth reading. But if you haven't read The Omnivore's Dilemma or Fast Food Nation or Animal, Vegetable, Miracle yet, start there first.

Book #54: Little Bee

Title: Little Bee
Author: Chris Cleave

The cover of Little Bee beseeches the reader not to tell other readers what the book's about. I think he gives away that he's telling the story of two women who have a chance meeting and then eventually come back together two years later. The story takes place mainly in the later period, with flashbacks to their initial meeting. I guess I'll respect Cleave's wishes and not give away too much of the story, although it makes it hard to write a review of the book without doing so. I will say that he creates interesting female protagonists, one almost entirely likable, and one fairly repugnant, but working on it, that initially seem to function almost as stereotypes, but he does move beyond it at the end. I don't know if I had become sort of sensitized to gore and sexual themes during my month away from my regularly-scheduled reading, but I found some of the scenes in Little Bee a little bit hard to read, and it's hard to say how or why without giving away the plot, so I won't. Actually, I think Cleave would have done well not to place such a prohibition on discussion of the book, because I found it really, really interesting, and worth talking about, and also a book complicated by compelling strengths and weaknesses. Read it, then we can chat.

Book #53: My Own Country

Title: My Own Country: A Doctor's Story
Author: Abraham Verghese

Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone was one of the best books I read last year. I'm not sure if it was my very favorite, but it was in the top two or three, for sure.

Although Cutting for Stone was fiction, My Own Country is a memoir, focusing on the years when Verghese, born in Africa to Indian parents, is a young infectious diseases doctor in rural Eastern Tennessee, right at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. As one of the only physicians in the area willing and able to take care of the men and women suffering from the disease, Verghese becomes almost like part of their families as he nurses them to their deaths.

This may sound cheesy, but Abraham Verghese has a gift. As I read the Whitney books, I read a lot of good, solid books by good, solid writers. But when I read for my own pleasure, I tend to read mostly what others have recommended as the best of the best. As a general rule, the quality of the writing in the things I normally read is a degree higher than the quality of what I read in the month of March. Abraham Verghese's writing definitely falls on the highest end of my spectrum, even when that spectrum is comprised many of the good stuff. I know that lots of writers (and I'm sure Verghese would include himself in this group) become good by working hard and revising and thinking and putting in sweat equity. But there's just something about the way he writes that makes me want more. In fact, I just ordered his other memoir.

Another thing I thing I thought was interesting about My Own Country is the way that Verghese treats his relationship with his wife Rajani. During the years that the book takes place, he and Rajani go from being happily married to realizing that their marriage has problems. By the time the memoir was published, the couple was divorced. So I think it's interesting for him to write about some of the good years of their marriage (both of their sons are born during the Tennessee years) from the perspective of someone who is newly divorced. Although I don't think he shrinks from his role in the collapse of the marriage, he also doesn't portray Rajani as the "and she never complained" kind of self-sacrificing spouse that people like doctors and bishops are supposed to have.

Blogging, reading and priorities

It's been a while since I've blogged about reading, and honestly, I've had a hard time getting back into the reading groove since I finished the Whitney judging. It's been a busy month with the kids and with getting ready to start school again next week. Earlier in the year, I had high hopes that I might finally surpass the 100 book mark this year, and it seemed like with all of the Whitney books, success in that realm would be inevitable. But my guess is that I'll probably end up reading about as many books as I've read in previous years, because when I'm busy with a writing project (and I've had a few up my sleeve the last month) my discretionary time gets siphoned into writing instead of into reading. I have a hard time managing both at the same time.

That's the thing about free time, there's never as much of it as I would like. And while my kids are old enough now that they don't require me to carry them around or get down on the floor with them to make sure they're not choking on stray goldfish crackers, they do tend to cut into my ability to sustain concentration. And I have to have priorities too. Family, church and school come first. Then probably running. And reading is down on the list, somewhere near making sure the basement is clean. So I haven't read much today (I've carried a book around a lot) and my basement playroom is also a disaster. Tv-watching is so low down the list that I'm still not caught up on everything I recorded during the Whitney frenzy (there's only so much laundry to fold) and blogging is way, way down the list, somewhere near weeding. Maybe, once I get some laundry folded and get caught up on Brothers and Sisters, I'll have time for weeding later this afternoon. Goodness knows it's not going to happen after school starts next week.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Book #52: Food Rules

Title: Food Rules
Author: Michael Pollan

This morning, instead of chowing down on a big bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch or Frosted Flakes like I normally do, I reached into the way back of my refrigerator and found a container of greek yogurt. I chased it down with a banana and felt very virtuous. This morning, before hauling myself out of bed, I read Michael Pollan's short, sweet Food Rules, which is basically a distillation of his two other food-related books, The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food (in fact, I think pretty much everything in Food Rules can also be found in In Defense of Food, although in a less compact format). For $11, it would have been nice to have more new info in the book (I read it in about 30 minutes), but I also think it's a helpful reference for people who want to eat better but either don't know how or lack willpower.

I'm one of the ones who lacks willpower. Pollan's main thesis is "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." And I'm not good at any of those three things. I'd rather eat sugary cereal (not "food" in Pollan's book, but rather a "foodlike substance") than eat yogurt. I work out a lot precisely so I can eat a lot. And plants just don't do it for me the way a hot fudge sundae or a dozen oreos does. Then I read a book by Pollan or watch Food, Inc and I feel all virtuous and try to eat well, and it lasts a few days, and then I'm back to shopping in the middle of the grocery store, filling up my cart with fruit roll ups and corn dogs. So this morning, I ate yogurt. For lunch, I already have whole grain pasta and asparagus on the brain. Maybe the compactness of this little book will help me permanently change my eating habits. I'd like to think it will, but it probably won't.

Book #51: Eating the Dinosaur

Title: Eating the Dinosaur
Author: Chuck Klosterman

Eddie and I bought this audiobook to listen to when we were driving around Hawaii. Even though I've read basically all of Klosterman's nonfiction books, they're not the kinds of books I'd normally imagine myself enjoying. For one thing, he writes almost exclusively about rock music, about which I know very little (my most hated question when I was dating was "what kind of music do you listen to?" because I never felt like I knew enough about music to answer that in an intelligent way) and sports, about which I care even less. Yet Klosterman accompanied us up to Haleakala and down to Hana and around Diamond Head, talking about Nirvana and Ralph Sampson and football's passing game.

While I may not be all that interested in many of Klosterman's pet subjects, I have long been interested in Klosterman himself. So the act of listening to him read his own book was more fun for me than what he actually wrote. I had a friend in college who was really smart, and liked to philosophize. I'm not too dumb, but I'm not especially philosophical, and I always felt exhausted after spending an evening with him and his salon. After listening to Eating the Dinosaur, I felt sort of the same way about Klosterman. Do people really spend that much time thinking about Ted Kaczynski and relating his manifesto to the internet? Klosterman does, although not all that successfully. He is most successful when he talks about things I'm interested in (of course), like Mad Men and advertising. But I also felt like I was learning a few things along the way, like the fact that Courtney Love drove a Lexus and Mike Leach was a maverick long before he locked some ESPN anchor's kid in the broom closet.

Book #50: The Undaunted (Whitney Book 30!!!)

Title: The Undaunted
Author: Gerald Lund

I hadn't read any Gerald Lund books since I gave up on the Work and the Glory series back after the second book. When I picked up this book and saw that it was (gulp), more than 800 pages, I wasn't excited about reading it (which is why I put it dead last on my list). But I shouldn't have let my the length of the book, or my history with Lund's previous books, color my perspective too much, because I actually enjoyed this book quite a bit. I even cried at the end. The Undaunted follows the typical GL modus operandi-- inserting a fictional family or two into a historical event in the church's history. This time, the fictional families are the Dickinson/Drapers and the McKennas, and the historical event is the journey of the Hole-in-the-Rock Pioneers, who traveled from Cedar City to settle a Mormon community on the banks of the San Juan River.

Also standard GL fare: using twenty words to say something that can be said in ten (the book is 800 pages long), a significant romantic plot, and lots of talk about spiritual things. Honestly, the talk about spiritual things was probably the strength of the novel. I think that most authors have a hard time writing about conversions and spirituality, but David Draper's conversion to the gospel (which took place 10 years after his baptism) is what kept me turning the pages, especially since Lund called the book the story of the Hole-in-the-Rock Pioneers, but they didn't even set out on their journey until the book was more than half over. It wasn't a perfect book and was too long by about 300 pages, but I'm still glad I had this one to read me through to the end of the Whitneys.

Book #29: Warbreaker (Whitney Book 29)

Title: Warbreaker
Author: Brandon Sanderson

If you look at Sanderson's 600+ page novel and feel nervous about jumping in, I'm here to say that even for a science fiction hater like me (and one reading under an ever-shorter deadline) Warbreaker was packed with the things all good books should come with-- interesting, well-drawn characters, a compelling plot, and ideas left to chew on once the reading is done. The king of Idris must send one of his daughters to marry the presumably evil god-king of Hallandren in order to avert a war. However, instead of sending Vivenna, who has prepared her whole life for the role, the king sends her younger sister Siri. Vivenna follows, and gets mixed up with mercenaries, and finds herself discovering that the rich colors of Hallendren make things appear different from what they really are.

Sanderson has a whole theory going on here about breath, how taking it decreases the life of the giver, and how it can be taken forcibly or freely given. The breath can then be used to animate inanimate (or dead) objects. I think a sci-fi lover would really get into all of that stuff. For me, it was the relationships between Siri and the god-king, between Vivenna and Warbreaker, and among the lesser gods of Hallandren, that made the story interesting.

Book #28: Servant of a Dark God (Whitney Book 28)

Title: Servant of a Dark God
Author: John Brown

I purposely left three books, Servant of a Dark God, Warbreaker, and The Undaunted, until the end of my reading for the Whitney Awards, and not because I wanted to reward myself with good books at the end. These were all big, huge books, and two of them, Servant of a Dark God and Warbreaker, are science fiction (and not just science fiction, but the Tolkien-esque "secondary creation" kind of science fiction that I avoid with all costs). So as I write this review, keep in mind that I was stepping way, way out of my comfort zone to read this book. It's something I never would have picked up if not for this contest, even though it was quite a coup for Brown to snag a contract from Tor, the premier sci-fi publisher, with his first novel.

It should also come as no surprise that I didn't love it, or even really like it. While I think part of that problem just comes with my aversion to this genre (it makes my head hurt to have to figure out all of the new vocabulary that comes with a book like this). While I expect to feel lost for a while when jumping into a book where the world is not our world but resembles it quite a bit, I never quite got over feeling lost while reading Servant of a Dark God. I usually try to distill the events in a book into one or two sentences, but that's pretty much impossible to do here. Suffice it to say that the characters in the book, especially young Talen, learn that things in their world aren't what they appear to be, and that good can masquerade as evil (and vice versa). The last hundred pages or so are pretty interesting, but after slogging through 350 to get to the good stuff, I just felt exhausted by the time I got to the end.

Book #47: The Maze Runner (Whitney Book 27)

Title: The Maze Runner
Author: James Dashner

If I had to make up a recipe where the end result was The Maze Runner, I'd take one part Lord of the Flies, one part Ender's Game, one part Super Mario Bros, and one part The Hunger Games, shake them all up, and toss out anything that doesn't raise the heart rate. After taking a long elevator ride, Tom wakes up to a life where he remembers nothing about his past except his name, and he's living in a community of teenage boys who fear nothing more than being left at night outside the gates of the castle-like structure they inhabit. After Tom arrives, the rules begin to change. He heads out into the maze beyond the gates, and along with the other boys, tries to find a way to finally bring them all home.

The Maze Runner is a compelling book and an interesting read. I sat down and read it in basically one sitting, and I think I would have read it quickly even if the Whitney deadline hadn't been looming. It's a story that I think my own kids would bust through in a couple of years. But a story that you can't put down isn't always a good read, and I'm not sure if it was intentional or not on Dashner's part, but the story seemed somewhat lacking in emotional intensity and character development, likely because the characters themselves didn't have histories they could remember. I'll still read the next book in this series, but I think I'll approach it with somewhat lowered expectations.