Thursday, April 30, 2009

Read in April

So my total is less than last month's, but in my defence, the Raymond Chandler comprised several novels as well as a screenplay!

Fiction (10)

The Bostonians - Henry James
Veil of Gold - Kim Wilkins
The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K. Le Guin
The Bookshop - Penelope Fitzgerald
Later Novels (The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye, Playback, Double Indemnity) - Raymond Chandler
Bonjour Tristesse - Francoise Sagan
Goldengrove - Francine Prose
Towards Another Summer - Janet Frame
An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter - Cesar Aira
Intuition - Allegra Goodman

Fiction (Young Adult) (5)
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Volume I - M.T. Anderson
The Bad Beginning - Lemony Snicket
The City of Ember - Jeanne Duprau
The Yearling - Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
The Blue Girl - Charles de Lint

Fiction (Short stories)
The Boat - Nam Le

Graphic Novel
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol 1 - Alan Moore

Nonfiction (3)
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found - Suketu Mehta
Once upon a Quinceanera - Julia Alvarez
Things I've Been Silent About - Azar Nafisi

Total: 20

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Boat by Nam Le

A whole lot of praise has been heaped on this book. But perhaps that is why I was somewhat disappointed by it. My expectations were too high. But wait, wait, I'm not saying that I was disappointed by all the stories in The Boat. Nam Le had me at "That's all I've ever done, traffic in words" in his opening story, Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice. It was beautifully written, it was sad and also terribly endearing. And then it ends, a little too soon for me, and we cut to a whole new world of a teenaged hitman in South America. That's the thing about short stories, while I enjoy reading them very much, it's like hopping on one of those extremely short flights, you take off, you're in the air for a little bit, they serve you a meal and hurridly clear it and before you know it, they're telling you to buckle you seatbelts and put your tray tables back because they're getting ready to land. And that's how I felt with this opening story. It was an amazing read and I wanted the story of Nam and his father to go on, but nope, that was the end of it, and Nam Le takes us into South America for a tale of a teenaged hitman.

The truth is, while there is an interesting diversity of characters and settings, and what seems to be plenty of research in the other stories, such as an American woman visiting Iran, a teenager's crush in Australia, Hiroshima orphans, I ended up liking the two about Vietnamese people (the first and the last stories) the most. I'm glad I read this book, as I can somewhat understand all the hype about it. Nam Le's writing is well, pretty awesome, even in the stories I was less enamoured with, his writing was what shone through.

Monday, April 27, 2009


I've yet to read Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda which I picked up from the library last week, but here is Gourevitch with his recommendations for further reading on Rwanda.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame

Grace Cleave, 30 and unmarried, is a writer living in London, far from her native New Zealand. She is uneasy about leaving her flat, for "journeys were not simple matters for Grace; nothing is simple if your mind is a fetch-and-carry wanderer from sliced perilous outer world to secret safe inner world." So when Phillip Thirkettle, who once interviewed her for a magazine, invites her to stay with his family for the weekend, Grace can't help but worry about it:

"I can't survive the weekend, I can't go among people for three whole days, talking to them, sharing meals with them, having to decide when to join them and when to leave them alone, when to go to bed, when to get up."
Grace says little and nothing much happens during her weekend in the north - that is, nothing much happens except in her head, where she takes flights of nostalgia back in time to her childhood in New Zealand, where her father, who worked for the railroad, often moved the family around the country. Frame writes Grace with a frankness, her thoughts constantly in motion, floating around borderless, moving with such fluidity that a conversation with the Thirkettles in the kitchen becomes a reminiscence of her parents sitting around their kitchen in New Zealand. The burden of being a polite weekend guest is almost too much for her, such as when Peter proudly shows his visitor the town's viaduct:
"Yes. M-m-m-m-m, she said, making a stupid noise as if she were eating cake. She cleared her throat, and stared, trying to put an intelligent expression on her face, as if she were 'taking in the effect'."
Written in 1963, this posthumously published book is not an easy read. Grace lives an isolated life as an immigrant in London. She has these thoughts of becoming a migratory bird; “it is time for me to fly towards another summer.” It is her unique way of overcoming her feelings of alienation and loneliness. She is also hardly comfortable in her own skin and her interactions with other people, especially the Thirkettles, are awkward, although they sometimes provide some humorous moments. I couldn’t help liking Grace - she is written with such honesty and expresses emotions and weaknesses that many of us experience in real life. She is very real, rather self-deprecating, her emotions raw and out there for us to see. Perhaps that’s what makes it a bit hard to read.

Author Janet Frame, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia which was later discovered – after years in psychiatric hospitals and electric shock treatments – to have been a misdiagnosis, felt that Towards Another Summer was too personal to be published in her lifetime. She wrote it after her own writer’s block and a weekend stay with friends. Towards Another Summer is an exploration of the idea of home, and of belonging. It is lyrical and overflows with emotions. I went into this book knowing nothing about Janet Frame’s life, but when I finished the book, I was intrigued by Frame and her writing, and could not wait to read more of her work, and of her life.

(Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Better late than never

It's taken me a week to post these pictures, but here are some of what R and I did last weekend, a lazy lazy one with some fun in the kitchen on the Saturday, and a nice hour-long walk on Sunday.

First, on Thursday I made chocolate banana cake (from a Bill Granger recipe, which in case you're interested, has been posted in full here. I added some chopped walnuts into the mixture, and served it on its own. It's quite rich already, with the chocolate chips.)

Then on Saturday, we whipped up some waffles with my new toy, the hand mixer (I was toying with buying a very coveted Kitchen Aid stand mixer, but with our stay here not a permanent one, and the whole electrical appliances thing being quite different here from Singapore's, I think I'll wait to make the investment when I'm more settled. It is after all, quite pricey. This one was far more affordable, and can do the whisking/beating I need for now.)

And our other new-ish toy, the waffle maker, which is actually some years old, and comes courtesy of R's parents.

Ok so this wasn't the first batch. The first batch got stuck because the top half of the waffle maker wasn't oiled. It was however, still edible, but just not as pretty. These waffles were from the leftover batter that we stuck in the fridge for Sunday.
For dinner, we headed out to San Mateo to hit the Japanese supermarket, and returned with some lovely and quite affordable sashimi.

And made our own sushi, mostly of avocado, crab stick, Japanese cucumber and Japanese mayonaise.

Not pretty but pretty tasty!

Veil of Gold by Kim Wilkins

You don’t have to be a fan of Russian folklore to appreciate The Veil of Gold. Australian writer Kim Wilkins’s latest fantasy takes readers into this dark and magical world where secrets and spells abound.

In the tenth century, Olga, Princess of the Rus, adopted Christianity, giving the Christian Church “a clawhold in the minds of Russian people” and resulting in the dilution or abolishment of many of the old ways. Thus, one world became two. There is Mir, the world of humans. There is also Skazki, which is a "cruel and bitter place. It is also a place where your own death cannot find you; only a death not-of-your-own." A veil separates these two worlds, and it is almost impossible to get across.

The story revolves around a golden bear. Found in an old bathhouse in modern-day St. Petersburg, the bear ‘marks’ three people: Rosa Kovalenka, a Russian beauty who has the second sight; Daniel St. Clair, her former lover and a researcher of Russian history; and his colleague Em Hayward, who accompanies him on his trip. Rosa entreats Daniel to take the mysterious bear to a professor in the university in Arkhangelsk to authenticate it, but along the way he and Em vanish. Rosa searches for them only to learn that the golden bear has taken them across the veil and into Skakzi or "the world of stories."

Wilkins divides the story into three sub-plots. First is Rosa in Mir, where she meets Anatoly Chenchikov, a powerful magician, near one of the veil crossings. He agrees to teach her to understand her second sight. In order to learn from him, she has to stay and work for his family. Rosa soon learns that the Chenchikov family keeps many secrets and hides much pain. Second are Em and Daniel, struggling to make their way through the dangerous world of stories, where the old folktales of woodland and water spirits and witches have come to life. The last sub-plot is of the background history of the division of the two worlds and one man’s mission to bring them back together. Wilkins admirably makes each plot strand as compelling as the next.

Wilkins’ characters are no swashbuckling heroes: “We’re like two rejects from Oz, Em. You don’t have a heart, and I have no courage.” Cowardly Daniel can get on one’s nerves sometimes – he is completely lost and helpless in this new world, and often depends on frosty Em to take the lead. Rosa is vivacious and feisty, but in her story thread the haunted Chenchikov family is more captivating.

It takes a while to get into The Veil of Gold, but as the characters explore the world of story, it becomes a rather engaging read. Page after page flew by, and the book ended all too soon for me. However, parts of the narrative are a little predictable. As one of the characters says, “a good storyteller always knows to select only the tales that are important to his ending.” Wilkins, with nearly 20 books under her belt, does just that – she selects the pieces of her puzzle just a little too carefully, and the book would have worked better with a lighter touch.

(Originally posted on Curled Up With A Good Book)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Library Loot (23 April 2009)

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Alessandra that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

And once again it was time to hit the library. The goal was to return books, not to borrow any. Needless to say I went off-mission and returned with more books to add to the towering pile.

Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb
One of those '1001 Books' list books, it has a pretty interesting premise, although the "unbelievable and shatteringly convincing" part was the thing that hooked me.
According to ancient Japanese protocol, foreigners deigning to approach the emperor did so only with fear and trembling. Terror and self-abasement conveyed respect. Amélie, our well-intentioned and eager young Western heroine, goes to Japan to spend a year working at the Yumimoto Corporation. Returning to the land where she was born is the fulfillment of a dream for Amélie; working there turns into comic nightmare.
Alternately disturbing and hilarious, unbelievable and shatteringly convincing, Fear and Trembling will keep readers clutching tight to the pages of this taut little novel, caught up in the throes of fear, trembling, and, ultimately, delight.
Good Poems by Garrison Keillor
Because sometimes you just need a good one.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch
I've been trying to get my hands on this one for a while now, so I was thrilled to find it in the library.
An unforgettable firsthand account of a people's response to genocide and what it tells us about humanity.

This remarkable debut book chronicles what has happened in Rwanda and neighboring states since 1994, when the Rwandan government called on everyone in the Hutu majority to murder everyone in the Tutsi minority. Though the killing was low-tech — largely by machete — it was carried out at shocking speed: some 800,000 people were exterminated in a hundred days. A Tutsi pastor, in a letter to his church president, a Hutu, used the chilling phrase that gives Philip Gourevitch his title.

With keen dramatic intensity, Gourevitch frames the genesis and horror of Rwanda's "genocidal logic" in the anguish of its aftermath: the mass displacements, the temptations of revenge and the quest for justice, the impossibly crowded prisons and refugee camps. Through intimate portraits of Rwandans in all walks of life, he focuses on the psychological and political challenges of survival and on how the new leaders of postcolonial Africa went to war in the Congo when resurgent genocidal forces threatened to overrun central Africa.

Can a country composed largely of perpetrators and victims create a cohesive national society? This moving contribution to the literature of witness tells us much about the struggle everywhere to forge sane, habitable political orders, and about the stubbornness of the human spirit in a world of extremity.

Cocaine Nights by J.G. Ballard
The only Ballard I've ever read is Empire of the Sun so this is to remedy that.
The setting for Cocaine Nights is the Costa del Sol and the stylish resort of Estrella de Mar. Into the queasy beauty of this artificial environment steps Charles Prentice, a travel writer from London who has come to visit his brother Frank, manager of the resort's Club Nautico.

Frank is in jail, having confessed to setting an explosive fire that has taken five lives. Certain that the confession was coerced, Charles launches his own investigation. As he allows himself to be drawn further into Estrella de Mar's dark underworld, this explosive novel accelerates toward a disturbing climax.

Good Fiction Guide
This is so not good for my too-long to-be-read list.
Covering everyone from Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain to Don De Lillo and Lorrie Moore, Good Fiction Guide offers an informative reference work on novelists and their works, with an emphasis of twentieth-century fiction and popular classics, but with ample coverage of major novelists of the past.

Check out more library loot here.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira

Don't you just love it when a book takes you by surprise?

I picked up An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter for a number of reasons. I'd heard of Aira and was interested to see what his writing was like, the book only has 86 pages, it was the only Aira book available, and it had a preface written by Robert Bolano, which begins: "If there is one contemporary writer who defies classication, it is Cesar Aira" and ends: "Aira is an eccentric, but he is also one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today". So how can one go wrong with that?

Let me give you the blurb from the book:

"An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter" is the story of a moment in the life of the German artist Johan Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858). Greatly admired as a master landscape painter, he was advised by Alexander von Humboldt to travel West from Europe to record the spectacular landscapes of Chile, Argentina, and Mexico. Rugendas did in fact become one of the best of the nineteenth-century European painters to venture into Latin America. However this is not a biography of Rugendas. This work of fiction weaves an almost surreal history around the secret objective behind Rugendas' trips to America: to visit Argentina in order to achieve in art the "physiognomic totality" of von Humboldt's scientific vision of the whole. Rugendas is convinced that only in the mysterious vastness of the immense plains will he find true inspiration. A brief and dramatic visit to Mendosa gives him the chance to fulfill his dream. From there he travels straight out onto the pampas, praying for that impossible moment, which would come only at an immense price--an almost monstrously exorbitant price--that would ultimately challenge his drawing and force him to create a new way of making art. A strange episode that he could not avoid absorbing savagely into his own body interrupts the trip and irreversibly and explosively marks him for life.

Ok, so when I picked up this book, I didn't quite read the blurbl, so I had no idea what I was getting into. And when I read the first few pages, I wondered, what was I thinking? Because it reads like a biography of this Rugendas, the first few pages traced his family's background as painters, from his great-grandfather, who founded this "dynasty of painters" after losing his right hand as a young man, and not being able to continue the family trade of clock-making. But as Rugendas ventures into Argentina, the story began to pick up, and was bolstered by some rather magical landscapes and writing: "'I can still see it in my mind's eye...' ran the stock phrase. But why the mind's eye in particular? They could still feel it on their faces, in their arms, their shoulders, their hair and heels, throughout their nervous sytems."

And I found myself setting aside other things and finishing the book. It was an odd book, definitely, yet rather fascinating, although I can't quite explain why.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Goldengrove by Francine Prose

Thirteen-year-old Nico loses her sister Margaret, "the beautiful sister, willowy and blond. The lake breeze carried her perfect smell. She smelled like cookies baking". She realises what it means to the rest of this small town, that her perfect older sister is dead: "I was no longer Nico. I was the dead girl's sister".

Nico's parents are as affected as she is, although in different ways, and they are too distracted with their own grief to look out for Nico's:
"Margaret's death had shaken us, like three dice in a cup, and spilled us out with new faces in unrecognizablr combinations. We forgot how we used to live in our house, how we'd passed the time when we lived there. We could have been sea creatures stranded on the beach, puzzling over an empty shell that reminded us of the ocean."

This is a book about loss. It wasn't what I was expecting, as it was one of those 'huh, I've yet to read [insert author's name here], let's see how this one goes' book picks. But I don't regret this selection. Yes, it was not an easy read, no book about death and a family's grief will ever be an easy read, but it was moving and it was well-written and heartfelt. And I couldn't help but get caught up in the family's downward spiral, wondering how they would end up, wondering if they would ever survive it, wondering how Nico would do, and I found myself turning page after page, reading more than half the book in one night.

Prose's observations of how other people in the town were affected by Margaret's death were especially memorable, such as when Nico's former fourth-grade teacher comes for a visit:

"Pressing me to her pillowy chest, Mrs Atkins wept, and so did I. I knew she was crying about her mother and not about Margaret, or maybe a little about Margaret, but still, we were crying about the same thing."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Later Novels and Other Writings by Raymond Chandler

There are two fiction sections in libraries and bookstores I've always avoided - romance and crime/mystery. That is, until I discovered Raymond Chandler.

I first picked up The Big Sleep last month and completely fell head over heels into the world of Philip Marlowe, private detective, who says things like: "I like to drink, but not when people are using me for a diary."

So I was delighted to see Later Novels and Other Writings, although not on the crime/mystery shelves in the library but in the general adult fiction section. It has a great collection of his work, such as The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister and The Long Goodbye, all once again starring the delightful Marlowe:

"A private eye wants to play ball with the police. Sometimes it's a little hard to find out who's making the rules of the ball game. Sometimes he doesn't trust the police, and with cause. Sometimes he just gets in a jam without meaning to and has to play his hand out the way it's dealt. He'd usually rather have a new deal. He'd like to keep on earning a living."

His characters are raw and so easily imaginable, and his scenes and details, are just such a thrill to read, as Chandler is a genius in bringing it all to life, perhaps even larger than life:

"Why do I go into such detail? Because the charged atmosphere made every little thing stand pit as a performance, a movement distinct and vastly important. It was one of those hypersensitive moments when all your automatic movements, however long established, however habitual, become separate acts of will. You are like a man learning to walk after polio. You take nothing for granted, absolutely nothing at all."
All thoroughly enjoyable pageturners. This collection also contains his screenplay Double Indemnity and I was thrilled to find out that it's available on Netflix's instant viewing list, and I can't wait to see how it'll look on the screen.

As for the 'romance' shelves? I don't think I'm going to take a crack at that yet. If ever.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Argh! That precocious scheming Cecile!

She's just 17 and having the time of her life. Her father, a widower, has rented a large villa on the Mediterranean, "remote and beautiful, standing on a headland jutting over the sea". They are accompanied by Elsa, his "mistress of the moment, a tall red-headed girl, sensual and worldly, kindly, rather simple-minded and unpretentious". Life is good for Cecile. She meets Cyril, a college student who is staying in a nearby villa, "tall and almost beautiful, with the kind of good looks that immediately inspires one with confidence". Then Anne Larsen, Cecile's dead mother's friend, comes to stay. Anne is 42 and divorced, "a most attractive woman, much sought after, with a beautiful face, proud, calm, reserved" (yes in Sagan's world, everyone is good looking).

Cecile is appalled when her father decides to marry Anne. She sees their decadent life in Paris disappearing - all the parties her father took her to, the freedom she had. "'Cecile will have to study during her vacation'" Anne insists, almost as soon as she arrives.

"She would gradually turn us into the husband and step-daughter of Anne Larsen, that is to say, she would turn us into two civilized, well-behaved and contented persons. For she would certainly be good to us. How easily -unstable and irresponsible as we were - we would yield to her influence, and be fitted into the attractive framework of her orderly plan of living. She was much too efficient."

So to save herself and her carefree life with her father, Cecile hatches a plan. She tells Elsa that she is her father's real love and convinces her to pretend to be with Cyril: "'You are fighting for your future, Elsa!'" Her little plan begins to take shape as she lets things drift along. But perhaps it's working all too well.

Bonjour Tristesse is quite a frivolous tale and would be a perfect beach read. This was Francoise Sagan's first novel - and her most famous one - and she wrote it when she was just 18. Her novel That Mad Ache or La Chamade - published in French in 1965 but released this year in a new English translation - is sitting on my shelf and I'm quite curious to see how that differs from
her very first.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Maximum City by Suketu Mehta

"There are many Bombays; through the writing of a book, I wanted to find mine."
I had three days to read about the ins and outs of Bombay as I had to return Maximum City to the library on Wednesday. So I only managed to take a few notes from the book. It is dense and quite intense, but definitely a worthwhile read.

After 21 years spent overseas - in the US, in Europe, writer Suketu Mehta returned to India, to Bombay or Mumbai, to raise his family. "Home is not a consumable entity. You can't go home by eating certain foods, by replaying its films on your television screen. At some point you have
to live there again. The dream of return had to be brought into the daylight sooner or later."

In Maximum City, Mehta looks at Bombay through the very diverse stories of gangsters, bar dancers, movie stars and directors, and slum dwellers. These were tales of hardship, of love, of frustration, of violence, of family, of corruption, of happiness, of sorrow, of Bombay. I was most moved by the stories of Monalisa and Honey/Manoj, bar dancers from difficult backgrounds whose career saved them from destitution, and quite intrigued by the making of a Bollywood movie (Mehta co-write the screenplay for the film 'Mission Kashmir'). The book is a labour of love - from the in-depth research to the dangers the writer put himself in when speaking to gangsters.

Maximum City was a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist and a winner of the Kiriyama Prize.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Library Loot (15 April 2009)

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Alessandra that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

Here's what I got this week:
Things I've Been Silent About by Azar Nafisi
Azar Nafisi, author of the beloved international bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran, now gives us a stunning personal story of growing up in a family in Iran, moving memories of her life lived in thrall to a powerful and difficult mother, against the background of Iran during a time of revolution and change. A young girl's pain over family secrets and a mother's lost life, a young woman's discovery of the power of sensuality in literature, the price a family pays for freedom in a country beset by political upheaval — these and other threads are woven together in this beautiful memoir, as a gifted storyteller once again uses her own life to transform the way we see the world and "reminds us of why we read in the first place"
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I read Purple Hibiscus and quite enjoyed it, so I'm looking forward to this one.
With her award-winning debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was heralded by the Washington Post Book World as the “21st century daughter” of Chinua Achebe. Now, in her masterly, haunting new novel, she recreates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria during the 1960s.
An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira
I've yet to read anything by Cesar Aira, this was the only work of his available on the library shelves though.
An astounding novel from Argentina that is a meditation on the beautiful and the grotesque in nature, the art of landscape painting, and one experience in a man's life that became a lightning rod for inspiration. "An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter" is the story of a moment in the life of the German artist Johan Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858). Greatly admired as a master landscape painter, he was advised by Alexander von Humboldt to travel West from Europe to record the spectacular landscapes of Chile, Argentina, and Mexico. Rugendas did in fact become one of the best of the nineteenth-century European painters to venture into Latin America. However this is not a biography of Rugendas. This work of fiction weaves an almost surreal history around the secret objective behind Rugendas' trips to America: to visit Argentina in order to achieve in art the "physiognomic totality" of von Humboldt's scientific vision of the whole. Rugendas is convinced that only in the mysterious vastness of the immense plains will he find true inspiration. A brief and dramatic visit to Mendosa gives him the chance to fulfill his dream. From there he travels straight out onto the pampas, praying for that impossible moment, which would come only at an immense price--an almost monstrously exorbitant price--that would ultimately challenge his drawing and force him to create a new way of making art. A strange episode that he could not avoid absorbing savagely into his own body interrupts the trip and irreversibly and explosively marks him for life.
Once upon a Quinceanera by Julia Alvarez
This has been on my TBR list for a while, although I can't remember where I heard about it.
The bestselling author of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents explores the phenomenon of the Latina "sweet fifteen" celebration

The quinceañera, the fifteenth birthday celebration for a Latina girl, is quickly becoming an American event. This legendary party is a sight to behold: lavish ball gowns, extravagant catered meals, DJs, limousines, and multi-tiered cakes. The must haves for a "quince" are becoming as numerous and costly as a prom or wedding. And yet, this elaborate ritual also hearkens back to traditions from native countries and communities, offering young Latinas a chance to connect with their heritage.

In Once Upon a Quinceañera, Julia Alvarez explores this celebration that brings a Latina girl into womanhood. She attends the quince of a young woman named "Monica" who lives in Queens, and witnesses the commotion, confusion, and potential for disaster that comes with planning this important event. Alvarez also weaves in interviews with other quince girls, her own memories of coming of age as an immigrant, and the history of the custom itself — how it originated and what has changed as Latinas become accustomed to a supersize American culture. Once Upon a Quinceañera is an enlightening, accessible, and entertaining portrait of contemporary Latino culture as well as a critical look at the rituals of coming of age and the economic and social consequences of the quince parties. Julia Alvarez's dedicated fans will be eager to hear her thoughts on this topic. It is a great book for anyone interested in American youth today — parents, teachers, and teenagers themselves.

The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham
Larry Darrell is a young American in search of the absolute. The progress of his spiritual odyssey involves him with some of Maugham's most brilliant characters — his fiancée Isabel whose choice between love and wealth have lifelong repercussions, and Elliott Templeton, her uncle, a classic expatriate American snob. Maugham himself wanders in and out of the story, to observe his characters struggling with their fates.
The Boat by Nam Le
I've been waiting to get my hands on this for a while, especially after Mel went to his reading in Iowa.
A stunningly inventive, deeply moving fiction debut: stories that take us from the slums of Colombia to the streets of Tehran; from New York City to Iowa City; from a tiny fishing village in Australia to a foundering vessel in the South China Sea, in a masterly display of literary virtuosity and feeling.

In the magnificent opening story, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice," a young writer is urged by his friends to mine his father's experiences in Vietnam — and what seems at first a satire of turning one's life into literary commerce becomes a transcendent exploration of homeland, and the ties between father and son. "Cartagena" provides a visceral glimpse of life in Colombia as it enters the mind of a fourteen-year-old hit man facing the ultimate test. In "Meeting Elise," an aging New York painter mourns his body's decline as he prepares to meet his daughter on the eve of her Carnegie Hall debut. And with graceful symmetry, the final, title story returns to Vietnam, to a fishing trawler crowded with refugees, where a young woman's bond with a mother and her small son forces both women to a shattering decision.

Brilliant, daring, and demonstrating a jaw-dropping versatility of voice and point of view, The Boat is an extraordinary work of fiction that takes us to the heart of what it means to be human, and announces a writer of astonishing gifts.

De Niro's Game by Rawi Hage
I think of all the literary prizes out there, the one I'm always the most interested in is the shortlist from the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, which this book won last year. I like how the longlist is chosen by libraries around the world, and the longlist is always such fun to browse through for reading ideas.
Childhood best friends Bassam and George have grown to be men in war-ravaged Beirut. Now they must choose between the only two futures available to them: to stay in the devastated city and consolidate power through crime or to go into exile abroad, alienated from the only existence they have ever known.

Told in a distinctive, captivating voice that fuses vivid cinematic imagery, a page-turning plot, and exquisite, dark poetry, De Niro's Game is an explosive portrait of life in a war zone and a powerful meditation on what comes after. It won the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2008.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Volume I: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson
The weird thing is that the library filed volume one in the adult section, but volume two is located under young adult fiction.
A gothic tale becomes all too shockingly real in this mesmerizing magnum opus by the acclaimed author of Feed.

It sounds like a fairy tale. He is a boy dressed in silks and white wigs and given the finest of classical educations. Raised by a group of rational philosophers known only by numbers, the boy and his mother — a princess in exile from a faraway land — are the only persons in their household assigned names. As the boy's regal mother, Cassiopeia, entertains the house scholars with her beauty and wit, young Octavian begins to question the purpose behind his guardians' fanatical studies. Only after he dares to open a forbidden door does he learn the hideous nature of their experiments — and his own chilling role in them.

Set against the disquiet of Revolutionary Boston, M. T. Anderson's extraordinary novel takes place at a time when American Patriots rioted and battled to win liberty while African slaves were entreated to risk their lives for a freedom they would never claim. The first of two parts, this deeply provocative novel reimagines the past as an eerie place that has startling resonance for readers today.

Intuition by Allegra Goodman
Nominated for this year's Orange Prize. I remember reading about it on the various book blogs, as well as in this piece from The Guardian.
Hailed as “a writer of uncommon clarity” by the New Yorker, National Book Award finalist Allegra Goodman has dazzled readers with her acclaimed works of fiction, including such beloved bestsellers as The Family Markowitz and Kaaterskill Falls. Now she returns with a bracing new novel, at once an intricate mystery and a rich human drama set in the high-stakes atmosphere of a prestigious research institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Sandy Glass, a charismatic publicity-seeking oncologist, and Marion Mendelssohn, a pure, exacting scientist, are codirectors of a lab at the Philpott Institute dedicated to cancer research and desperately in need of a grant. Both mentors and supervisors of their young postdoctoral protégés, Glass and Mendelssohn demand dedication and obedience in a competitive environment where funding is scarce and results elusive. So when the experiments of Cliff Bannaker, a young postdoc in a rut, begin to work, the entire lab becomes giddy with newfound expectations. But Cliff’s rigorous colleague–and girlfriend–Robin Decker suspects the unthinkable: that his findings are fraudulent. As Robin makes her private doubts public and Cliff maintains his innocence, a life-changing controversy engulfs the lab and everyone in it.

With extraordinary insight, Allegra Goodman brilliantly explores the intricate mixture of workplace intrigue, scientific ardor, and the moral consequences of a rush to judgment. She has written an unforgettable novel.

Have you read any of these books? Let me know what you thought of them.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Saturday in Santa Cruz Part Two

We walked off the lunch (well, at least part of it) at the beach.

And then we put it all back on again when we had a late dinner at Chocolate. This required a very patient 50-minute wait for a table, most of which I spent at the lovely Bookshop Santa Cruz next door. They had great staff recommendations all around the store (also available on their website), and a nice selection of books and magazines. I picked up the current issue of Zoetrope All Story, which has a Latin American focus.

Sesame chicken salad

Asparagus torta with salad.

'Belga' hot chocolate - like drinking nutella.

The Dessert Orgy - gelato, chocolate cream pie, coconut cream pie, cherry pie, tiramisu, a very dark and rich chocolate cake and chocolate truffles. It was a good selection, and I'm glad it wasn't all chocolate, which would've been far too sinful. Dessert was definitely the highlight of this meal and I would return again, but probably have dinner elsewhere.
1522 Pacific Ave
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Saturday in Santa Cruz Part One

Saturday morning started out with a drive down some winding roads and ended up at the Mystery Spot. It's supposedly a place with some kind of gravitational anomaly. The tour involved the use of levels and a billiard ball to illustrate various things that I wasn't quite paying attention to. It was mildly entertaining but wasn't quite worth the wait nor the $5 parking fee.

It was after 1pm by the time we left, and we were all pretty hungry, which probably accounts for why a heap of appetisers were ordered at The Greek. There were garlic fries, mussels, beans, greens, sausages, tarmasalata and pita bread.

R's main - lamb gyro.

I had the moussaka, which came with more carbs - pita bread, rice and potato. Not too bad, pretty creamy and packed with eggplant. But I think I prefered the appetisers, especially the sausages and the tarmasalata.

Of course I didn't manage to finish my meal.

We ended with some baklava, which was a bit of a letdown, as it was barely buttery.

The Greek
435 Front St
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

"The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive."

Genly Ai, the envoy of Ekumen, a federation of worlds, is living on Karhide, also known as Winter: "the dominant factor in Gethenian life is not sex or any other human thing: it is their environment, their cold world. Here man has a crueler enemy even than himself."

Genly seeks an alliance with the nations of Gethen. To the Gethenians, he is an alien, although he doesn't look too different from them. But they are quite unlike in one particular way: "Cultural shock was nothing much compared to the biological shock I suffered as a human male among human beings who were, five-sixths of the time, hermaphrodite neuters." In other words, "the mother of several children may be the father of several more".

For his belief in Genly's mission, the Prime Minister of Karhide, Estraven, is exiled. He enters neighbouring Orgoreyn to seek shelter, Genly's path leads there too, and it is unfortunately, the wrong one for Genly. The Orgota, playing a political game of sorts, imprison him, refusing to believe that he is an emissary from another world. Estraven rescues him from the work farm and they trek for months across the frozen landscape to Karhide.

The Left Hand of Darkness is a tale of an unexpected friendship. Yes it's about politics and gender issues but it's too cloudy and sleepy a day to start on all that. You can google 'left hand of darkness' and find out a whole lot more, I'm sure, if you're so inclined. I definitely enjoyed the book, although I have to also add that Le Guin's Earthsea series is among my all-time favourite books, so perhaps I went into this book expecting to like it. And I did. It was written from an anthropological view, an observation of the world so different from ours. I especially liked Ursula K Le Guin's introduction to the book, where she writes:

"In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we're done with it, we may find - if it's a good novel - that we're a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it's very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed."

PS: On Le Guin's website, she posts a rejection letter for her manuscript of The Left Hand of Darkness.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

I just had to post this when I saw it on Stephanie's Written Word. I've not heard of the book, but it sure looks like a cute movie.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Florence Green wants to set up a bookshop in Hardborough, a seaside town largely cut off from the rest of the country. But her idea is less than welcome, especially by Violet Gamart, "the natural patroness of all public activities in Hardborough", who planned to turn the old building Florence has just bought into an arts center. But despite the unfriendliness from the town, the damp and the poltergeist, her bookshop becomes reality and Florence struggles with the initial set-up of her beloved store: finances are somewhat of a mystery and she hires a 10-year-old assistant, who does a better job at organizing the lending library than Florence ever could.

My favourite passage in The Bookshop, of course, has to do with books:
"New books came in sets of eighteen, wrapped in thin brown paper. As she sorted them out, they fell into their own social hierarchy. The heavy luxurious country-house books, the books about Suffolk churches, the memoirs of statesmen in several volumes, took the place that was theirs by right of birth in the front window. Others, indispensable, but not aristocratic, would occupy the middle shelves. That was the place for the Books of the Car - from Austin to Wolseley - technical
works on pebble-polishing, sailing, pony clubs, wild flowers and birds, local maps and guide books. Among these the popular war reminiscences, in jackets of khaki and blood-red, faced each other as with bristling hostility. Back in the shadows went the Stickers, largely philosophy and poetry, which she had little hope of ever seeing the last of. The Stayeds - dictionaries, reference books and so forth - would go straight to the back, with the Bibles and reward books which, it was hoped, Mrs Traill of the Primary would present to successful pupils. Last of all came the crates of Muller's shabby remainders. A few were even second-hand. Alhough she had been trained never to look inside the books while at work, she opened one or two of then - old Everyman editions in faded olive boards stamped with gold. There was the elaborate endpaper which she had puzzled over when she was a little girl. A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. After some hesitation, she put it between Religion and Home Medicine."

I was looking to read a rather English novel, and The Bookshop quite fulfilled that need. It's a short book, just 123 pages in the edition I picked up from the library. But within those few pages, there is witty, emotive writing, there is courage and odd but moving friendships, and both the charm and nuisance of small-town life.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Kill Your Friends by John Niven

It is 1997. The Spice Girls and Jamiroquai are bestsellers, No Doubt has a number-one single, and so does Hanson. The Labour Party wins the election, and a chap named Tony Blair takes the reins of the United Kingdom.

Steven Stelfox, 27, is an A&R (artist and repertoire) man. His job is any music lover’s idea of heaven:

"I listen to music - singers, bands, songwriters - and decide which ones stand a good chance of commercial success. I then arrange for them to be recorded in a sympathetic manner and we, the record company, sell them to you, the general public."
But don’t be mistaken - this is a dog-eat-dog world. It is a world of excess; they don't call it sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll for nothing. And apparently, the music executives live it large, perhaps even more so than the stars themselves. They live it large in London, and even larger when they head to the south of France each January for a week of deal making and networking:
“The plane is rammed with industry. Had this flight gone down, London's cocaine, prostitution and private members' club industries would have been devastated.”
Stelfox is the very embodiment of this drug-fueled, sex-crazed world. He’s dug himself a huge financial hole, “running two mortgages, a bridging loan, an overdraft and six credit cards, as well as the usual monthly outgoings: large and regular tabs must be settled with west London's cocaine dealers. Drinks, fine dining and regular exotic holidays must be factored in. Monthly, it seems, I must write cheques to various London parking authorities for hundreds of pounds' worth of fines.” The only answer to this is a hit record: “Have a few of those and - bosh - no more problems.”

But in this fickle music world, where no one has a clue what they are doing and there is no explanation for why “husky-female-singer number 3 will sell more records than numbers 1, 2, and 4 through to 99,” Stelfox is no hardworking poster boy. He struggles to sign hot bands before other labels do (and often misses), and scores what he thinks might just be a hit single, but it never charts. Stelfox is flailing in a sea teeming with sharks, and he knows it – the position for A&R head is up, and he’s not on the list. Instead, his colleague Roger Waters, who Stelfox reckons is a music imbecile, gets the promotion. But Stelfox is reluctant to take his nose out of the cocaine and sober up to reality, and we are taken along on an American Psycho-style free-for-all bash-up.

This is Niven’s first novel but he certainly knows what he's talking about, having spent ten years in the music industry in the UK. In an interview, he explained that he wanted to write it from "the point of view of someone who was within the belly of the beast and who loved it there, someone who was completely unapologetic about his greed and ambition."

Kill Your Friends is not an easy book to get through and ought to come with a warning sticker: “Not for the faint of heart”. It is unapologetically vulgar and brash – it is almost impossible to quote passages that are not crowded with profanity. It can be rather excessive, as if Niven is trying to see just how far he can push it, but the result is that parts of it are quite painful to read. Yet despite its perverseness, it has its funny side, especially Stelfox’s cynical takes on the British music industry: "The record is absolutely, off-the-scale, demented, tacky, cheesy, single-entendre garbage. But, and never forget this, this is exactly what 99 per cent of the Great British Public enjoy."

Kill Your Friends is dark and cruel and rather dementedly entertaining and will make you see the music industry in a whole new light – just don’t read it while you’re eating.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book

The Blue Girl and The Yearling

I'm lumping these two books together as while they are very different, they are mostly catering for their main audience - the younger set.

I was expecting more from The Blue Girl, my first Charles de Lint read. It was overall a fun read but I didn't like the way things seem to have been resolved relatively quickly at the end. I wasn't really into the way the book is told from the perspectives of the three characters either. I think I might have picked the wrong Charles de Lint book to start with. I'll have to see what else the library has, as I don't intend to just give up on his work.

The Yearling was quite a surprise. I started out wondering how this became a Pulitzer Prize winner back in 1939, but it began to grow on me. It is a marvellous coming-of-age tale set in Florida. A time when bears and panthers roamed, and your nearest neighbours were 4 miles away. It was vivid and very absorbing. I admired Penny's appreciation for nature and wildlife and was continuously amazed at how life was led in those times. But I wondered if, were The Yearling to be published today, would it be a Pulitzer Prize winner?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters by Timothy Schaffert

There is a little of Hansel and Gretel in The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters. More than ten years ago, Lily and Mabel Rollow were abandoned by their parents – their mother left them with their grandmother in rural Nebraska not long after their father’s suicide. As the book opens, the sisters are living alone in the gray house after their grandmother takes off for Florida after Lily’s graduation, “smiling and wearing a brand-new red dress” and leaving her mess of a junk shop to them, a “secondhand shop where nothing ever changed hands”. The sisters have mere crumbs to lead them to their faded past. They know none of the details of their father’s suicide, except that it involved a gun: “They didn’t know if he’d put it in his mouth or in his ear, didn’t know if it had taken apart his head or had left a simple clean hole.” Their mother had faked their father’s suicide note: “Always before, Mabel had hated the letter, this evidence of their mother’s deception, but she’d grown to need it. As its words dissolved and the paper fell apart, as it slowly ceased to exist, it became something true. This lie became an honest portrait of Mabel’s mother and her confusion.”

Mabel, 21, and Lily, 19, are inevitably preoccupied with death and loss. Even their objects of interest have tragedy written all over them. Lily’s boyfriend Jordan wears his on one scarred wrist, and he and Lily have a shared fascination with the stories of serial killer Charlie Starkweather. Mabel finds herself drawn to a boy who has lost his sister in a swimming pool accident, leading her to conclude that she should only be with people who are “just sick about missed tea parties and other lost minutes”.

There is no doubt that the sisters have had a hard life and are searching for their place in the world. And they take it upon themselves to put together the pieces of their past. But the two are cut from different cloth and have their own ways of dealing with this. Lily, the younger and more headstrong sister, takes off with Jordan in a stolen car to confront their mother in Mexico. But without her older sister around to shock, Lily becomes less defiant: “She really did want to see her mother again but only if her mother wanted to be seen. The slightest bit of disappointment on her mother’s face, and Lily wouldn’t know what to say or do.” Mabel is left behind to tend shop and chase their father’s ghost. She takes a plastic toy panther to a brain-damaged glue-sniffer who is reported to communicate with the afterlife.

It was not easy to feel for Lily and Mabel. The sisters are old souls and are very much like eccentric grandaunts whose exploits might enthrall you at Christmas family gatherings. You listen, enrapt in their lively adventures and quirky anecdotes, and you may think you understand them but in the end, you realize you don’t know them at all.

Like the antique store, this book is filled with all kinds of clutter. And that is where Schaffert, who himself grew up in the Nebraska farm-belt, excels – in the fragments snatched from Lily and Mabel’s childhood, the newspaper clippings the sisters collect of tragedies, their dreams, the other eccentric characters that dot the lonely Nebraska landscape (the barber keeps a collection of old Suzanne Pleshette movies at his shop), and the very junk that invades the Rollows’ store, stolen from “the emptiest of ruins”. However, all this can sometimes threaten to overflow and overthrow the story but, like Lily, who plucks “the most meaningless junk from the antique shop” and turns it into something desirable, Schaffert has managed to rein in all these pieces to form a whimsical first novel that is a bittersweet and lively read.

(originally published at Curled Up with a Good Book)

Friday, April 03, 2009

LIbrary Loot (2 April 2009)

I headed to the library in search of something, a certain type of book, yet I wasn't entirely sure what it was. So I ended up with a variety of genres, and hopefully something will be of the right fit.

Raymond Chandler - Later Novels and Other Writing
A lot more Raymond Chandler, including The Lady in the Lake and The Long Goodbye.

Ursula K Le Guin - The Left Hand of Darkness
Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards for "Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year".
Praised as a groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary's mission to Winter, an unknown alien world whose inhabitants can choose — and change — their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter's inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters. Completely embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.
Penelope Fitzgerald - The Bookshop
Something English:
In 1959 Florence Green, a kindhearted widow with a small inheritance, risks everything to open a bookshop - the only bookshop - in the seaside town of Hardborough. By making a success of a business so impractical, she invites the hostility of the town's less prosperous shopkeepers. By daring to enlarge her neighbors' lives, she crosses Mrs. Gamart, the local arts doyenne. Florence's warehouse leaks, her cellar seeps, and the shop is apparently haunted. Only too late does she begin to suspect the truth: a town that lacks a bookshop isn't always a town that wants one.
Francoise Sagan - Bonjour Tristesse
Something French:

Set against the translucent beauty of France in summer, Bonjour Tristesse is a bittersweet tale narrated by Cécile, a seventeen-year-old girl on the brink of womanhood, whose meddling in her father's love life leads to tragic consequences.

Freed from boarding school, Cécile lives in unchecked enjoyment with her youngish, widowed father — an affectionate rogue, dissolute and promiscuous. Having accepted the constantly changing women in his life, Cécile pursues a sexual conquest of her own with a "tall and almost beautiful" law student. Then, a new woman appears in her father's life. Feeling threatened but empowered, Cécile sets in motion a devastating plan that claims a surprising victim.

Deceptively simple in structure, Bonjour Tristesse is a complex and beautifully composed portrait of casual amorality and a young woman's desperate attempt to understand and control the world around her.

Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill - The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 1
A graphic novel
In this amazingly imaginative tale, literary figures from throughout time and various bodies of work are brought together to face any and all threats to Britain. Allan Quartermain, Mina Murray, Captain Nemo, Dr. Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde, and Hawley Griffin, the Invisible Man, form a remarkable legion of intellectual aptitude and physical prowess. Presented in this trade paperback is the League's first adventure together, from their initial recruitment to their heroic victory.
Francine Prose - Goldengrove
Something American:
At the center of Francine Prose's profoundly moving new novel is a young girl facing the consequences of sudden loss after the death of her sister. As her parents drift toward their own risky consolations, thirteen-year-old Nico is left alone to grope toward understanding and clarity, falling into a seductive, dangerous relationship with her sister's enigmatic boyfriend.

Over one haunted summer, Nico must face that life-changing moment when children realize their parents can no longer help them. She learns about the power of art, of time and place, the mystery of loss and recovery. But for all the darkness at the novel's heart, the narrative itself is radiant with the lightness of summer and charged by the restless sexual tension of teenage life.