Sunday, August 29, 2010

Katrina, five years later

I can't explain exactly why, but what happened after the levees broke in New Orleans five years ago still affects me so deeply that thinking about it not only puts a lump in my throat but fuels an internal round of sheer, unadulterated anger. How so many people were literally left hung out to dry and virtually abandoned by those whose job it is to care is still beyond my capacity for understanding. I don't think I'll ever get it, to be honest.

This post isn't a retrospective about my feelings; that would take pages and pages and I'd still not be able to get everything down. Instead, I've done something constructive for myself and others who want to revisit Katrina and New Orleans: I've created a list of nonfiction books that deal with Katrina and its aftermath, which can be found here.  I'm sure I don't have them all, so if you know of more, please let me know. And, because not all of the studies are in book form, after some research, I found a site of scholarly research on the hurricane's effects, which you can find at the Katrina Research Hub.  There are links to everywhere, including the US Government. And believe me, I'm going to go through them all.

It's not that I'm obsessed...I just want answers. And I can't be the only one out there who still thinks about those dark days that exposed just how little our government cared. 

C, by Tom McCarthy

Okay. This isn't really a review, because this is a book that absolutely demands a second reading; once you get to the end you absolutely have to go back and read it again. I finished this book in the wee small hours of Saturday morning (probably around 3 a.m.) and was so stunned at the ending (in a positive way) that I couldn't go to sleep. I just kept laying there thinking about what I'd just read, trying to tie things together in my head. Then I decided I had to go back and do it again.  Personally speaking, the immediate reread of a novel is a relatively rare occurrence -- so that should tell you something.

What I will say for now is that C is a brilliant piece of writing that I hope will at least make the shortlist because it's that good. It's beyond good.  It has its down moments, but these are quickly forgotten as the story hits its stride and heads toward one of the best endings I've ever encountered in a novel. So -- more later this week after I've finished it again.

Monday, August 23, 2010

It's Monday! What am I reading?

   I'm back once again to report my slow progress -- this week I spent mainly trying to get back into life after being flat on my back two weeks ago and then going to California. It hasn't been a superb reading week (or two, as the case may be!), just okay.  My thanks to Sheila at bookjourney, who keeps this going every week.

Here's how it went:
Read and reviewed

Room, by Emma Donoghue  -- I have the UK version; the US version is out in September
The Murder Room, by Michael Capuzzo
(read earlier, reviewed later): Parrot and Olivier in America
  by Peter Carey

Read and not yet reviewed -- coming someday

Trespass, by Rose Tremain
The Phantoms of Breslau, by Marek Krajewski
A Murder of Quality, by John Le Carré
A Call for the Dead, by John Le Carré

Currently reading
C by Tom McCarthy (and LOVING it, by the way)
A Small Death in the Great Glen, by A.D. Scott  

Plans for this week (Larry's gone so it should be a good week for books)
The Long Song, by Andrea Levy
 and whatever else I can find that captures my interest at the moment

that's it... until next week!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Room, by Emma Donoghue


--warning-- this review may contain spoilers -- so beware

Jack is a five year old boy who lives in an 11 x 11 space with his mother that Jack calls "Room." Not only is this place their home, Room is the only world that this child has ever known.  He has never been outside Room, and although he and his mother (Ma) have a television, Ma has told him that what he sees on the tube is not real.  The door to Room is always locked.  Although Jack doesn't know this, Ma has worked very hard to make life as normal for Jack as it possibly can be given the circumstances -- Jack and Ma eat, sleep, exercise, play games, sing songs, have lessons and conversations all within Room's confines.

We learn about life in Room through Jack, who narrates the story.  The routines differ only sometimes at night, when the man that Jack has dubbed "Old Nick" occasionally shows up and Jack needs to go inside "Wardrobe," where he has to sleep, until Old Nick is gone again. Jack doesn't like Old Nick and instinctively feels something rather sinister about the man's presence; at the same time he knows that Old Nick is the one that he and Ma depend on for food, clothing, and the occasional "Sundaytreat."  Jack's observations of Room, his world view within this space, and his conversations with Ma are often surprisingly adult in nature, considering he's only five, but at the same time, the reader is still very conscious that Jack is just a little boy, still learning about and trying to make sense of things in his world, just like any other child his age.  But then one day, Ma decides to tell Jack the truth about some things, and makes plans to leave Room forever. The rest of the novel (which is not really giving anything away if you just look at the chapter headings) describes their escape from Room into a world Jack has never known, as well as its aftermath -- leading to collisions between what Jack has always believed was  real and what people are now telling him is real. And, just when you're comfortable thinking that this is only a work of fiction, FYI, Room is based on true events from Austria, the famous Kampusch kidnapping case.

I liked this book, but didn't fall in love with it the way most people who've read it have. At its heart,  it's a good story with a fresh premise.  Making Jack's eyes the ones through which the reader sees the Room world was a good idea -- there's much more immediacy to the story, making the reader wonder why they're there and what's going to happen.  Even though Jack's credibility often seemed a bit strained as a narrator due to his precocious and adult-like vocabulary, the fact that Donoghue also showed his child side makes this work.  The fact that Donoghue did not roam into the realm of the tawdry, either about the abduction or especially during Old Nick's night-time visits is to her credit -- doing this would have only cheapened the story to the point where I would have probably put the book down. Yet at the same time,  the second half of the book doesn't quite manage to hold on to the taut and clever construction of the first part, which had me reading nonstop. I won't say anything more specific, because I do not wish to give away the entire show.  

I predict that when this book hits the US next month it is going to sell big time. It comes on the heels of several widely-reported cases of kidnappings and victim rescues. It is designed to tug at heartstrings, and the author does that well. Finally, quite frankly, it's very reader friendly.   There isn't a lot of flowery prose, it's easy to read, resonates well with the fears of modern-day parents, and is generally suited to a wider audience of readers than most books that show up on the Booker Prize longlist.  I think it will do very well. That's not saying I think this is a great book, but I think it is going to be quite successful.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Parrot and Olivier In America, by Peter Carey

380 pp.

Parrot and Olivier in America is composed of two narratives that interweave throughout the novel: that of  Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, he of French aristo parentage, and that of  John Larrit (known as Parrot or sometimes Perroquet), son of an English  journeyman printer and a mother long dead.  Olivier's family were nobles who did not flee France during the revolution, but went to live in hiding in Normandy, so that when the monarchy eventually returned, their political position was tenuous. It became even more so when the last of the Bourbons (supported wholeheartedly by Olivier's mother) was later overthrown during the July Revolution of 1830. When Garmont was in his 20s and started attending lectures given by Francois Guizot, an activity deemed too politically dangerous for the young and naive man, his mother decided to ship him off to America for his safety:
You are a Garmont...the liberals see you and have no doubt you are a spy. The monarchists see you and know you for a traitor. You are in danger (77).
Ultimately his parents secured for him a commission to write on the state of American prisons, and create a report on his findings for France. Olivier, who as a child was a hypochondriac extraordinaire, never far from his Qianlong bowl of leeches, tends to be whiny and priggish, considers himself as a victim of the French Revolution, and has little to no understanding of others who are outside of his class and station.  Yet at the same time, there is a bit of a pathetic side to Olivier: he really has very little control over his own life -- everything is always decided for him by others.

Parrot, who as a young boy had escaped when his father and others were arrested in Dartmoor and ultimately executed for forging bank notes, had run across a Monsieur de Tilbot, who offered him help (eventually sending him off to Australia, promising that one day he would return -- the full account of which comes later in the story). As it so happens, Tilbot is also an acquaintance of the Garmont family, and turns out to be the initial connection between both characters. Parrot is older than Olivier, is an artist more firmly rooted in the working class, and in general understands the world better than his aristocratic counterpart. Parrot, a long time now in Monsieur's service, is called upon to spy upon Olivier while he attends Guizot's lectures. When Olivier's friend Blacqueville is killed defending their collective honors,  it is Parrot who is called on to escort him to America and to protect him while also serving as his secretary. And thus Parrot and Olivier come to America (but not until page 141!) -- and the rest of the book continues from there, where this odd couple of sorts come to realize the positives and negatives of living in a democracy and eventually come to terms with each other.

 I have to confess to never having read de Tocqueville (although I am familiar with many of his ideas on democracy), so at the end, when the author notes
The author's debt to Tocqueville himself will be obvious to scholars who will detect, squirreled away among the thatch of sentences, necklaces of words that were clearly made by the great man himself,
I find myself definitely not in the category of one of these "scholars," and perhaps I missed a thing or two along the way.  [The London Review of Books for August has an interesting take on this aspect of the novel if you're interested.]  But really, I don't think it makes that much of a difference while you're reading this book (unless, I suppose, you ARE a de Tocqueville scholar and you find things with which you may disagree or dislike about Carey's treatment).

I had a few minor issues with this novel. First, the book tends to lag at times -- for example, in the scenes where Olivier travels from place to place with Godefroy -- to the point where I found myself skimming to get to the next part, and there were other situations as well where the action was a bit dull.  Olivier's character, although drawn well, was rather aloof and often unreachable.  And then there's the little twist at the end. Just when I thought I had control over how I felt  about both main characters, Carey knocked the wind out of my sails for a while and made me have to do a rethink. But overall, I genuinely liked this book. When Parrot's first account began, I remember thinking how much I liked the feel of the narrative, as if someone were actively engaged in storytelling. Carey's judicious  use of imagery (especially of the birds) ran throughout , as did his constant allusions to the love of art. I also enjoyed his scenes that seemed to be taken right out of Dickens, especially in the case of Watkins and the forgers at the beginning.

 And I have to say also that I enjoyed the little barbs Carey throws out about the current situation in the US, especially when one of his characters notes that
America does not need either leadership or deep laid plans or great efforts, but liberty and still more liberty. The reason for this is that no one yet has any plans for abusing liberty. But wait, monsieur. It may take a century, but le fou viendra.
Take that as you will. My money's on W (pronounced "dubya").

Despite my minor issues with this novel, Parrot and Olivier is a clever philosophical debate about the pros and cons of democracy woven into a nice piece of historical fiction that will make you think about things long after you've put it aside. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I'm back, my back, and back to the February giveaway

and let's do this bass-ackward.  First matter at hand: who wins the giveaway of Lisa Moore's book, February?

The winner, determined entirely at random by, is M, or Maya, who came here via Goodreads.  Maya's blog is called Apprentice Writer -- go over and say hi. To all of the rest of you -- thanks so much for playing, and I see many more giveaways in my future.

Second: I'm back: I've been away in California with no computer -- only my iphone which I can't use for blogging because it takes me forever to write anything with that thing.  I can keep up with comments but that's about it.

Third: My back: well, on my birthday I slipped on a rainy grocery store pavement and it was all over -- flat until the day we flew out of here, so that was about 8 days where I could do nothing but just lay there wishing I could get up, but thinking that if I tried to imitate a well person, I'd kill myself on the flight from FL to CA.

I have tons of reviews to write -- so I'd better get cracking.

Congratulations again to Maya (M) for winning the February book giveaway.

Monday, August 9, 2010

It's Monday! What am I reading?

It's Monday after a very long weekend and so it's time again to report in on what I've been reading. My thanks to Sheila at bookjourney who hosts this feature each week.

I got only one review finished last week, although I did finish a fair number of books. Reviews will follow shortly for:

February, by Lisa Moore
Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey
 (both part of the Booker Prize Longlist) 4/13 down, 9 to go
The End of the World in Breslau, by Marek Krajewski
Our Kind of Traitor, by John LeCarre
   (which sparked the rewatching of the old BBC broadcasts of Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People and had me dusting off my old copies of other LeCarre novels I own)
Appointment With Death, by Agatha Christie

the solitary book review completed last week: 
 Murdering Stepmothers: The Execution of Martha Rendell, by Anna Haebich

This week I have longlist reading plans for
Room, by Emma Donoghue

and otherwise I have one more book by Marek Krajewski to read called The Phantoms of Breslau. Krajewski's books are excellent, seedy and somewhat creepy noir thrillers from Poland and I love them.

Currently I'm just starting Room, but I've also started LeCarre's A Murder of Quality. I've heard good things about Donoghue's book so I can't wait to get into it.

that's about it; don't forget I'm hosting a giveaway contest for Lisa Moore's February (see below). There's still plenty of time if you're interested.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

It's my birthday -- and I'm giving away a book to celebrate

  Yes, it's my birthday. I have no idea what we're going to do today but I'm sure it will be great. Last year Larry took me to Atlantis in the Bahamas and I got to swim with the dolphins. Not just to stand around and pet them but actually snorkel with them. That was great. The year before that it was a cruise. The year before that Larry rented an entire pontoon boat (normally seating 12) at Disney in FL, and we went around the lagoon before parking to watch the 9:00 pm fireworks from the Magic Kingdom on the water, complete with music & sound. I could go on and on (he's the master of awesome birthdays), but whatever happens today, I know it's going to be special. 

And to celebrate, I'm in the mood for a book giveaway.  One of my sons bought me a copy of Lisa Moore's February, and I'd already bought one, so I have an extra copy.  If you would like to try to win this copy, here's what you have to do.

1. Leave a comment on this post, and then send me an email with your email address. Anyone from any country can enter.
2. Enter by August 15th -- I will pick the winner (via on the 17th.  
3. You do NOT have to follow my blog to participate. I didn't start this blog to gain followers (but a special thanks to all of you who read my posts and comment every now and then!) so that's not a requirement. 

February, by Lisa Moore

Monday, August 2, 2010

August: She reads the Booker Prize Longlist

image from the Official Website of the Man Booker Prize
As noted below, the Booker Prize longlist is out. Each year I set aside the months of August and September  to read as many books as I possibly can before the winner is announced in October.  This is no easy feat, and I always want to get them read prior to the announcement of the shortlist -- which rarely ever happens. And I stink at predicting the winners, except for last year when I had a personal two-way tie between Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and The Glass Room, by Simon Mawrer and Mantel's book won. Had it gone the other way, I would have been just as happy -- The Glass Room is excellent. If you haven't had the opportunity to read it, definitely go get a copy. In many ways, it is much better than Mantel's book -- and it's unforgettable.

This year, also noted below, I've already read two that appear on the list, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (which I loved) and The Slap, which I thought was good but not great.  That leaves 11 to go:

in my library
Peter Carey Parrot and Olivier in America
Emma Donoghue Room
Andrea Levy The Long Song
Lisa Moore February
Rose Tremain Trespass

on its way:
Damon Galgut In a Strange Room
Tom McCarthy


Paul Murray Skippy Dies
Left to buy
Helen Dunmore The Betrayal

Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question
Alan Warner The Stars in the Bright Sky

The books by Dunmore and Warner are sequels, so I also felt compelled to pick up the earlier ones so that I don't start in the middle of a story somewhere and feel lost. Call me anal, whatever, but I hate that feeling in the back of my head that I might be missing something.

As always, so as not to feel guilty about books I already own and haven't read, I'll be continuing to read through my tbr pile a little at a time. This also helps clear out my brain, which by October tends to be very tired to the point where I just want to read junk afterwards. I'll be posting each book's review as I finish.

wish me luck!

It's Monday! What am I reading?

Today's installment of It's Monday (hosted by Sheila at Book Journey) is quite short, since there's basically nothing to report. 

Read and reviewed last week, which was incredibly busy with little time to spare:
  The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath, by Jane Robins
The Stone Murders, by Matti Joensuu
 I finished my review of Chef, by Jaspreet Singh

Read and not yet reviewed:
Our Kind of Traitor, by John LeCarre (ARC, courtesy of Viking/Penguin)

Currently Reading
February,  by Lisa Moore (on the Booker Prize Longlist)
Appointment With Death, by Agatha Christie

To be read this week, hopefully, but who knows:
finishing February, by Lisa Moore
starting Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey (on the Booker Prize Longlist)

as my daughter used to say in a rather flat tone, "whoopie doo," meaning big deal...I don't feel like I got much accomplished. Oh well!