Friday, February 25, 2011

Lots of Talk

Sometimes I can admire a book without really liking it. That's my reaction to The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson's Booker prize winning novel. It's not that often that I read a comic novel about anti-semitism (although Philip Roth has done it), and Jacobson is terrifically talented at being funny and thought-provoking at the same time, but in the end he wore me out. There is very little action; instead the three male main characters, two Jewish and one who wishes he was, ruminate about all things Jewish, and about life and love as well. It was sometimes amusing, sometimes annoying, sometimes sad, but after a while it felt like an interesting conversation that lasted too long.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Guidelines for Book Discussions

Whether your book group has been meeting for decades as ours has (28 years in April) or is just getting started; whether all of your members have some connection outside of the book group or are just getting to know one another, it will serve your group well to review periodically these guidelines for a lively book discussion:

1. Respect space: Avoid "crosstalk" or talking over others.
2. Allow space: Some members are more outgoing and others more reserved. If you've had a chance to talk, allow others time to offer their thoughts as well.
3. Be open: Keep and open mind, learn from others, and acknowledge there are differences in opinion. That's what makes it interesting.
4. Offer new thoughts: Try not to repeat what others have said, but offer a new perspective.
5. Stay on the topic: Contribute to the flow of the conversation by holding your comments to the topic of the book, keeping personal references to an appropriate minimum.

Many thanks to Reading Group Choices for providing these guidelines.

These principles are useful not just for book groups but also for business meetings, family gatherings, online chat rooms, blogs, etc. If you would like to add another suggestion that, in your experience, is helpful in promoting a civilized discourse, please leave it in a Comment.

Friday, February 18, 2011

In Dreams

As Rana Dasgupta's novel Solo opens, a nearly one hundred year old Bulgarian named Ulrich sits alone and blind in his rundown Sofia apartment and looks back on his life. He had witnessed a tumultuous span of history in which his native country was battered by the machinations of its more powerful neighbors. Allied with Nazi Germany during World War II, it then fell under the Communist power of the Soviet Union, only to morph into a sort of mafia capitalism after the Iron Curtain fell.

Ulrich is neither a hero nor a villain in all this, just a somewhat passive observer. His own passions, first for the violin, then for the study of chemistry, were both thwarted, and his relationships all ended sadly. This first section (Dasgupta calls it “First Movement”) is titled “Life”, and its chapter titles are all named for chemical elements, which seem to match the clinical detachment with which Ulrich tells his life story. Does this sound like a downer? Well, it is kind of unrelenting. But then as the First Movement comes to an end the narrator observes: “Thinking back, he is surprised at the quantity of time he spent in daydreams. His private fictions have sustained him from one day to the next, even as the world itself has become nonsense”. I think the world is full of people who are sometimes sustained by their daydreams.

The Second Movement is called “Daydreams”, and although at first I thought it was just a series of short stories having nothing to do with the first section, it soon becomes clear that these are Ulrich's daydreams - of the children he never had, the life he never lived, the travels he never made. A young Bulgarian violin virtuoso named Boris, and a poor but ambitious young woman from Tbilisi meet in New York, where the musician becomes a sensation. The story has a wildly imaginative and dreamlike quality, a sharp contrast to the first section. Even the chapter titles suggest a sort of exaggerated, underwater,mystical existence – Manatee, Ichthyosaur, Narwhal.

I'm not sure what it's all supposed to mean, but there was an odd sort of harmony between the two sections that left me satisfied.

PS Not many author's have a website quite like this one.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Lot Can Happen in 3 Seconds

What is it about the Swedish crime writers (Steig Larsson, Henning Mankell and now with their novel Three Seconds the duo of Roslund & Hellstrom) that we in the United States find so fascinating? Is it that we think that the crimes and moral dilemmas about which they write could not happen here...or precisely because we are afraid that they do happen here? I think it is the latter.

Having read the Larsson trilogy and some of Mankell I felt I would be remiss not to add Three Seconds. Prison, drugs and police informants: there you have it. A volatile mix. This is very definitely a stay-up-late, get-up-early, take-the-phone-off-the-hook kind of book. I still have difficulty with the Swedish place and street names but it didn't seem so bad this time. Maybe I'm just getting used to it.

The drug of choice in this case is amphetamines. If you want to know how to manufacture it, how to smuggle it between countries, how to cut it and how to get it inside a prison, this is the book for you. It is all detail. Not always a pleasant read but informative to those of us in our cocoons. And do you really know what your spouse/partner does at the so-called office or when she/he is supposed to be at home with the sick children?

Several times in the book the line "It takes a criminal to play a criminal" is repeated. Perhaps we will now have to extend that to say "It takes a criminal to write about a criminal." One of the co-authors Borge Hellstrom is described as an ex-criminal. Teaming up with journalist Anders Roslund seems like a good decision on his part. In this book they have raised some troubling questions: about the use of criminal informants to investigate other crimes, about the access to drugs in the prison system, about the manipulation of data by the police and higher authorities. Do the same things happen here? Should we care?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Navigating a Labyrinth

Is this reality, is this a dream, is this an hallucination? That's what I kept asking myself as I read Haruki Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. The protagonist/narrator Toru Okada, a mild-mannered underachiever living in a Tokyo suburb, somehow becomes involved in a series of a bizarre adventures. It begins with a missing cat, then a missing wife, then Okada is spending time at the bottom of a well or in a mysterious hotel room with a mysterious woman. There's a healer named Cinnamon with a mute son named Nutmeg, and a politician brother-in-law who may or may not be involved in the disappearance of Okada's wife.

Make sense? No, it really doesn't. But there was something compelling that kept me reading. Part of it was that my problem-solving self hoped that in the end all the pieces of this strange jigsaw puzzle would fit together. Spoiler alert – they don't. But part of it was that Murakami is a talented storyteller. Some of the best stories are told by characters who have little to do with the main plot – they arrive in Okada's life, tell their stories and leave. Some deal frankly with Japanese war crimes. Did I miss their connection to the narrative or was it just not there?

One disturbing fact that I learned after I had finished the book was that the English version of the novel was shortened by two chapters in order to meet the publisher's length requirements. It's yet another reminder that reading a translation always has its drawbacks. But reading a writer as talented as Haruki Murakami also has its rewards.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

O Parakeet of the Lissome Star

That is just one of names that Paul West created for his wife Diane Ackerman as a therapy for his damaged brain following a massive stroke. Ackerman, a prolific writer (The Zoo Keeper’s Wife, A Natural History of the Senses, Cultivating Delights, …) and poet, has chronicled the aftermath of the stroke in a forthcoming memoir One Hundred Names for Love.

It is a remarkable story: of a wife’s devotion to her injured husband – and a very painless way to learn a lot of brain science. West was in his mid-seventies at the time of the stroke and already battling diabetes and heart disease. Immediately after the stroke he could manage only one sound: Mem, mem, mem… Over the next five years Ackerman, assisted by an extraordinary therapist, was tireless in her efforts to help West regain his ability to write and speak coherently. Just reading about the struggles is exhausting. But Ackerman is a poet and the language with which she describes their efforts, their small successes, their setbacks is rich and delightful. Because West was an accomplished writer before the stroke, he is especially frustrated by the simplistic exercises put forth as traditional speech therapy. It is Ackerman, the wife who knows him better than anyone else could, who devises exercises like the One Hundred Names (all of which are recorded at the end of this volume).

The science is fascinating…and fun. Has it ever seemed to you that women talk faster than men? “Women can pronounce words faster than men, and utter more sentences in a given amount of time. Maybe because women use both hemispheres to comb through sounds, while men mainly use the left side. With a richer bounty of connections among neurons and a more thickly wired “corpus callosum” zooming traffic between the two hemispheres, the female brain may be better organized for language. Whatever, the reason, females are less prey to stuttering, dyslexia, autism, and other language problems, including aphasia.” Aphasia is the diagnostic term given to West’s condition.

The book will not be released officially until April. I was fortunate to receive an advance reader’s copy for review from the publisher through Reading Group Choices. I hope that somehow each and every one of the caregivers of Gabrielle Giffords, but especially her husband, will receive and read this book. The importance of having a primary caregiver deeply invested in the success of the outcome cannot be overestimated. I hope that none of us has to face such a daunting task – but the odds are that some of us will. This book will give hope and comfort.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Science and Fiction

If you are a reader who likes books where the main character is admirable, or likable, or even sympathetic, please don't read Ian McEwan's Solar. McEwan's protagonist, Nobel Prize winning physicist Michael Beard, is a philandering, self-delusional, boorish old goat, and there are at least five other unpleasant adjectives I could have added to that list. This is not the first time McEwan has created a pompous gasbag ( see Henry Perowne in “Saturday”), but he seems to have gone out of his way to make this man as loathsome as possible.

And yet...the guy knows how to write. When Michael, who has latched onto global warming as a way to keep the grant money and lecture invitations coming in, travels to the Arctic with a group of earnest planet-savers, his misadventures had me laughing out loud. McEwan also manages to weave in a fair amount of physics and environmental science without lecturing. The solar solution that Beard developed (he stole the concept from another scientist) actually seemed plausible, and when he traveled to New Mexico to power up his prototype system I was actually hoping it would work.

As in many of McEwan's novels, you can feel yourself hurtling toward a disaster, and you keep turning pages in spite of yourself. But the story is told from Beard's point of view, and he is one cold customer, so the crashing conclusion doesn't pack the wallop that other novels have.

It's not McEwan at his best, but it's still an enjoyable and often very funny read.
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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Through the Eyes of a Child

I think it is probably true that, when reading most fiction, it is a better experience, for a first reading, to come at it knowing as little as possible about the story. That is certainly the case with Emma Donoghue's Room although that would be hard to do given the amount of press the book has received.

Our narrator is Jack, age 5. I would like to hear an opinion from a child development specialist but the voice seems true to me (the book jacket says that the author has 2 young children) and very compelling even to an adult reader. I can't say that the language is beautiful because it is after all the language of a 5-year-old but it is very poignant and at times quite humorous. Jack and his mother face extraordinary challenges, some the same, some different. And there are times later in the book when the roles reverse and the child seems to have the greater maturity.

The author has tackled a challenging subject in a way that you will not soon, if ever, forget. Although this book lost out on the Booker Prize to The Finkler Question, it was awarded the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, well-deserved. Try to enlist a friend to read this book at the same time that you are reading it because you will certainly want to discuss it when you finish.