Library Loot, and the pleasures of browsing

Library Loot… what a nice idea for a meme! This is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

I snuck off to the library all by myself yesterday. What a treat! It seems like I almost always have a kid or two in tow, which is great in some ways, but it does make it hard to browse.

I reeeeeeeeallly love to browse. No question that reading book reviews and getting recommendations from friends is a great way to find good books, but browsing is the very best. For one thing, the design and, well, heft of the book are very important to me. Too-tiny margins or covers that won’t open flat (say) are a huge deterrent even if the book is otherwise awesome. Picking up a book and holding it in my hand is an important part of deciding whether to read it. For another thing, there is something very special and satisfying about stumbling across a book you’ve never heard of and discovering that it’s your own private treasure. Standing there in the library, thumbing through an intriguing-looking volume, perhaps reading page 69, wondering whether this one might be the next treasure — what could be nicer?

That said… when I went to the library yesterday I had a specific book in mind <grin>, The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi Julevits, which had been recommended to me by a friend <grin>. It wasn’t on the shelf however, so browse I did! As you can see, I didn’t get very far from my starting point: everything here is by authors whose names fall between I–K.

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay, by Beverly Jensen. Sisters in the title is what caught my eye. I myself am the older of two girls; my sissy and I are very tight and sister is a big part of my self-identity. Anyway, this a historical novel about these two sisters growing up in New Brunswick and Maine and it looks right up my alley. I’m afraid it’s going to be a sad read though. The author died young, of pancreatic cancer, and this was published posthumously. It will be hard to forget that fact while reading.

Another intriguing title: Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa. Don’t you just love the word chronicles? This was described on the back as being Uganda’s answer to Midnight’s Children. Well, Midnight’s Children is one of my all-time favorite novels. If this is half as good, it’s sure to be awesome. Plus I know nothing at all about Uganda. Yet…

Lucy, by Jamaica Kincaid. This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years and just never got around to. And speaking of look and feel, this is one beautifully-designed little book. Really looking forward to reading it.

The Bridegroom, a collection of short stories by my newly-discovered favorite author, Ha Jin. When I googled him after reading Waiting I learned that many of his stories take place in the same fictional city, Muji. That is one of my favorite literary devices. I love love love it when authors write about different characters in the same fictional setting. Wendell Berry’s Port Williams stories are a prime example. Ray Bradbury’s Green Town stories are another. (This is quite distinct from series, by the way. I am talking about groups of stories that feature different characters, different perspectives, possibly even different times, but in the same town. Best of all is when the protagonist from one story makes a cameo appearance in another. It’s like making eye contact with the author.)

A nice haul this weekend!

Philip José Farmer: To Your Scattered Bodies Go

I’m tagging this one Quit Lit. I made it as far as page 86. Alas, this thing is unreadable.

The reason I picked this book up in the first place is because my sweet geeky husband posted NPR’s list of the top 100 sci-fi and fantasy books on his facebook. I’ll be honest: I voted in that poll. I do like sci-fi. Quite a bit. So it was very entertaining to watch this big long thread develop on his page, with all his geeky buddies arguing and reminiscing and all. And this one guy was all up in arms because Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series was not on the list. “All these dead people get resurrected on another planet,” he enthused. “People from all periods of history mingled together, including Sir Richard Francis Burton as the protagonist. Riverworld is awesome!” So awesome that hubby rushed right out to the library and checked out a copy of the first book in the series, To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

I have been burned before by enthusiastic book recommendations from my husband’s pals in the past (*cough* The Drizzt Do’Urden series, which, unbelievably, did make the top 100). But this was a different pal, and I love historical fiction as much as I love sci fi; I mean they don’t make ’em much cooler than Sir R.F. Burton, right?

Well. It is true that all these people get resurrected on this mysterious planet, and the idea of all these historical figures being thrown together is a fun starting point. But unfortunately this book turned out to be nothing more than an adolescent male fantasy. See, they all wake up naked. And all the women have “great figures” and “exquisite features.” And there are psychedelic drugs which cause them to throw off all inhibitions and act according to their deepest desires… Now, I don’t mind sex and violence if it serves the story, but in this case it just seems self-indulgent.

And what’s even worse than the self-indulgent adolescent male fantasy is the schmaltzy pretentious writing. Random example: “Lev Ruach climbed out of the water and ran his hands over his skinny body to take off the drops.” Eh? People don’t “take off drops” — they dry themselves. Bizarre! Another example: “Frigate continued, ‘I’m so timorous and queasy because I am afraid of the anger, the desire to do violence, that lies not too deeply within me. I fear violence because I am violent. I fear what will happen if I am not afraid.'” Ugh, spare me the melodrama.

Yep, this is Quit Lit.

Ha Jin: Waiting

Waiting is a love story set in communist China. Doctor Lin Kong is in love with a nurse, Manna Wu, but he is trapped in a loveless, arranged marriage to Shuyu. Year after year he goes back to the village with the intent to divorce Shuyu, and year after year he fails. After 18 years he is finally allowed to divorce Shuyu and he marries Manna only to find that he was happier, waiting.

Waiting is a novel of characters, not plot. Although the novel takes place over a twenty-year period, there is nothing remotely “epic” or “sweeping” about it. It is tightly focused on the daily minutia and inner lives of Lin and Manna (and to a lesser extent Shuyu). These characters are finely drawn and all-too human. Lin can be annoying at times — he is passive, lacking in emotional intensity, doesn’t love Manna “enough,” and is generally disengaged from those around him. At the same time, he has a naiveté and gentle humor that makes him quite likeable. Manna is an interesting character too. In contrast to Lin, she experiences some extreme emotional highs and lows during the course of the story. Furthermore, it is she who initiates their illicit relationship, which takes a lot of courage — were the adultery made public they would both lose their careers. Shuyu is the least well-developed and hardest to understand. For much of the novel all we really know about her is that she is illiterate and had bound feet, a source of embarrassment for Lin. She is a long-suffering martyr type who, to tell the truth, kinda makes you cringe.

Sounds pretty dismal, doesn’t it? Actually it was anything but. I was completely engaged with these characters and very eager to find out how the 18 years of waiting would get resolved. There were some wonderfully deadpan comic moments, such as when Lin and Manna have to write a review of Leaves of Grass, of all things. (“To him, this was a bizarre, wild book of poetry that had so many bold lines about sexuality that it could be interpreted either as obscenity or as praise of human vitality. Moreover, the celebration of the poet’s self seemed to verge on a kind of megalomania that ought to be condemned. But on the whole this must be a good, healthy book; otherwise the commissar wouldn’t have let Manna read it.”) There were also sad moments and joyful moments and deeply moving moments. In other words, it was really good!

One thing I regret is that I didn’t think of looking up Mao’s Cultural Revolution until I was about halfway through the book. Although the story is completely focused on the individual characters, with very little mention of actual historical events, the sociopolitical climate of the time is integral to the story. It is (I assume) a big part of the reason why Lin was so ashamed of his old-fashioned wife. Not to mention a big part of why Lin and Manna have to be so circumspect, and why it is so difficult for Lin to obtain the divorce in the first place. Having a little background info definitely added a new dimension to the story.

Waiting won both the PEN/Faulkner and National Book awards. I can see why, and I’m eager to read more by this author.

All Hallow’s Read

What a charming idea, yes? Neil Gaiman proposes that we give away scary books for Halloween.

I’ve never been a big fan of Halloween. I don’t like wearing costumes myself; I don’t like doing crafty things like making costumes; I don’t like spending money to buy them; I don’t like having all that candy in the house; and orange and black is just about the ugliest color scheme I can think of. But, wow! The idea of giving away books… that changes everything!

Soooooo, here are my picks:

For Littler Kids

The Tailypo, by Joanna & Paul Galdone. I used to read this book to my son Jake when he was still at the read-aloud age (he’s going on 16 now). He still remembers this story vividly — it terrified him but he couldn’t resist it and we checked it out from the library again and again. It’s a classic bit of Americana: old geezer in the woods is cold and hungry and goes out hunting with his dogs. He shoots the tail off a creepy little beast, cooks and eats it, and the beast comes back in the night, scratching at the door… peering over the foot of his bed… repeating over and over again, give me back my tailypo! Which, incidentally, makes it very fun to read aloud!

As an aside, I think Paul Galdone is one of the best children’s book illustrators ever. We read so many of his books when my kids were young: The Little Red Hen, Puss in Boots, The Gingerbread Man. So delightful, all of them. And needless to say, his scribbly style suits this scary story perfectly.

For Bigger Kids

I believe I was in sixth grade when I stumbled across Lois Duncan’s Down A Dark Hall in the school library. It was the first gothic horror story I ever read and it set me on a binge that lasted for about two years (until I discovered sci-fi, topic for a different post).

Down A Dark Hall is a spooky boarding school story. The boarding school is so spooky, in fact, that only four students are talented enough to gain admission. But what, you may well ask, is the nature of these girls’ very special talent? Well you’ll just have to read the book to find out, bwa ha ha ha ha ha! And if you are an impressionable twelve-year-old, don’t start it on a school night. I promise you, you will be reading under the covers into the wee hours because you will not be able to put it down until it’s done…

For Grownups

The scariest thing I’ve ever read is “The Colour Out of Space,” a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. I wish I could give you a detailed plot synopsis but the fact is, I haven’t read it in 30 years and I’m too scared to go back and reread it. I don’t even want to google it! But the gist of it is, an indescribable color appears on a farm in New England. And the color is, I guess, sentient. It spreads all over the farm and beyond, blighting everything it touches. And that’s it. I don’t know why I find that so freaky, the idea of a color outside the spectrum as we know it, and the idea that a color could be a sentient evil being from outer space. Maybe because I am a very visual person to begin with, and colors have always been extremely salient for me. Or maybe it was the writing style, which as I recall was quite dry and matter of fact. The descriptions of the crops withering and turning that color, livestock dying from eating the grass, the village becoming a ghost town, oy! Truly, the stuff of nightmares.

Happy Halloween, and Happy Reading!

Thomas Berger: Adventures of the Artificial Woman

Fed up with “real” women, a guy builds himself a perfect robot wife who makes it big in show biz and ends up being elected President of the United States.

Eh? Not the kind of hook that would normally pique my interest, but after all it is by Thomas Berger. I went through a Thomas Berger phase about twenty years ago. He is quite prolific, and I remember being impressed with his incredible versatility: he has taken on everything from westerns (Little Big Man) to detective stories (Who is Teddy Villanova?) to King Arthur (Arthur Rex), and much in between.

Adventures of the Artificial Woman is a satire, of course. (With a plot line like this one, what else could it be?) The robot, Phyllis, is a bit like Mr. Spock. She has no emotion and no sense of humor, but relies solely on logic to understand the world around her. Thus she is the perfect vehicle for taking potshots at everything from marriage and sexuality to politics and the entertainment industry. For example, on the topic of vice presidents, Phyllis observes:

“I’ve researched the subject. Running mates are normally lifelong members of a party, notable for their loyalty to it. Though they may have been, up to that point, of the faction that earlier opposed the person now nominated for the big job, they are expected henceforth to join hands in partisan unity against the enemy, uncompainingly assuming the Presidential candidate’s exact position on every issue, especially those that were most fiercely debated during the nominating process by these two very individuals. The reward for the resulting hypocrisy is that the ticket-partner of a victorious President generally has an inside track for his own future bid for the White House.”

“Where does that leave our problem, Phyl?”

“We have no party, and thus far I have not expressed an opinion on any issue, so these matters need not be taken into the equation. We can promise a potential vice-presidential candidate that he will have a great opportunity to run on his own eight years from now.”

This is a pretty typical passage. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but clever and a bit snarky. If you’re looking to escape into a cozy story with finely-drawn sympathetic characters, this isn’t it. Satire needs to be read in a certain way (I am realizing as I write this). You have to distance yourself from the story in order to appreciate it. You can’t get wrapped up in it the way you can with other genres. Or can you? What do you think?

Chaim Potok: The Chosen

The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, is an oldy but goody. I believe this was my third time reading it. It’s a profound and very moving story about friendship, fathers & sons, and coming of age. It is also a fascinating look into the subculture of Hasidic Jews.

Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders live just a few blocks away from each other in Brooklyn, but they are growing up in completely different worlds. Danny is the son of an ultra-orthodox Hasidic rabbi or tzadik (wise man; messenger of God). The father is so venerated by his congregation that he has nearly royal status; and Danny, as the firstborn, is the heir-apparent. Danny lives in an insulated community: he speaks Yiddish, he studies the Talmud all day long, and he is kept from virtually any contact with the outside world at all. Reuven, on the other hand, is also a religious Jew, but much more worldly. His father is a writer whose ideas are in direct opposition to the Hasidic tradition.

Of course these two boys must meet, and they do. The story begins with a baseball game, and Reuven and Danny are on opposing teams. Danny’s team plays viciously, saying Reuven’s team are apikorsim (apostates) and they are going to kill them. In fact, they almost do — Danny whacks the ball straight at Reuven’s face, smashing his glasses and sending him to the hospital to have a shard removed from his eye. Danny comes to apologize, they make friends, and the rest is history. Their friendship survives a number of obstacles, not the least of which is their fathers’ bitter disagreement over Zionism in the post-Holocaust era.

There is so much to appreciate in this novel. I think what I love the most is the way the author presents opposing views in such a sympathetic way. While Reuven is appalled at the way Danny’s father treats him, the author is careful to show the father’s “side” of the story as well. Yes he is tyrannical, but his tyranny is borne of deep faith, love, and respect for the traditions of his culture. The arguments for and against establishing a secular Jewish state, too, are evenly presented. Potok does a fantastic job of using the various characters’ voices to portray opposite ends of the spectrum without siding with either one, leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions.

A great story. Much food for thought, even on the third time through.

Hello world!

Well I think I’m going to give book blogging a try. My real-life book group isn’t very satisfying, so hopefully this will be a good outlet for me to talk about what I’m reading and hear about what others are reading as well. My goal is to post two book reviews per week.