Monday, August 18, 2014

"That which was supposed to happen had happened"

This is a heck of a book. I suspected it might be: I mentioned to a twitter contact that I'd just taken it out from the library and he told me to get in touch when I'd finished it, because he wanted someone to talk about the ending with. And yet -- almost right up until it happened -- I was still surprised at how taken aback I was by the ending. In the best possible way.

Look, we may or may not know each other, and I certainly can't tell you how to spend your time, but I really think you want to read What Happened to Sophie Wilder.

The central characters, Charlie and Sophie, were intense college lovers at their exclusive liberal-arts-college writing program, and in the novel's present, Sophie comes back into Charlie's life under murky circumstances. The novel alternates between the two of them, unfolding the past both directly and indirectly.

This is a book about lives and narratives: the versions of our lives and others' lives that we construct and tell (think of the title as a question at a party: "Whatever happened to..."), and the relationship between those stories and real events, the march of time. What does it mean when it seems like someone else's story should be to fall in love with, or reconcile with, or help me, but they refuse? Can we know another person the way we know a character in a book? What does it take to change our own story; however sincere a conversion, can it really ever change our path? What Happened to Sophie Wilder effortlessly (!) drew me into these deep waters, as Charlie tries to piece together the plot of Sophie's life and find his own place in it. It's effective at conjuring up all these different layers of narrative and reality without getting in the way of the actual experience of reading; it's only when you get to the (puzzling, contradictory) ending, as you review the whole thing in your mind, that all of this comes to the surface. I guess it's a little like those Magic Eye posters (google it, youngsters): the ending knocks your eyes out of whack, so to speak, and then the thing you were looking at all along suddenly transforms into something deep and textured and surprising.

I'm trying not to give away too much (the unfolding is part of the effect), and so I'm falling into freshman lit major mumbo jumbo and possibly making the book sound weird or hard. It's not; it's an engaging novel that you can happily read on the train. Just as a story about young people figuring out what to do with their lives, it caught and held my interest. Plus the writing is notably good.
I miss that about those days---the freedom to want; the belief that our desires could never disappoint us, so long as we remained loyal to them; the sense that we could choose our fate, as though the absence of choice weren't exactly what made it fate.
And if you think, a novel about twenty-something capital-w Writers in New York City, goodie; I had a similar thought and, hilariously, on the next page it agreed with me:
Outside the world of mean-spirited media blogs no one had any idea who we were. Max secretly faulted me for this, though in truth people were simply tired of comfortable young white guys from New York. I couldn't blame them; I was tired of us, too.
So go get What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Better yet, get it and give a copy to a friend and make a pact to get together and talk about the ending when you've finished it.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Adventures in "giallo" literature

I believe in getting to the airport early for an international flight, but for various reasons I was outrageously early for my flight out of Fiumicino, meaning that I got to investigate all the shops at my leisure (and my wallet's peril). This included a Feltrinelli's outlet -- the Waterstones or Barnes & Noble of Italy -- which had a single, but generous, table of books in Inglese. This is an interesting thing, the forty or so titles in English that make up the selection in an airport bookstore; what would you choose and/or expect? In this case, there were the usual sorts of things, I guess, the supernatural romances, the pinky-purple chick lit, the conspiracy thrillers, the award short-list titles; but also, and I thought this was a nice touch, a selection of novels with Italian connections, whether written by Italians or simply set in Italy. And among these was a detective novel translated from Italian which sounded pretty interesting, but I virtuously chose not to spend my money in such a fashion (and promptly went and spent four times as much-- look, I don't have to explain myself to you). Having arrived home, I tried asking google what that book was so I could look for it at the library, and google suggested the Inspector Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri. Now, I think the Big G is wrong, I don't think Camilleri is the author I saw at the airport--

"Wish you had Glass now, eh?" - no, really no
--but Camilleri was readily available at the library and so I took out The Shape of Water, the first of this apparently much-loved series.

A man is found dead of a heart attack in his car, parked in an area notorious for prostitution. But of course, the dead man was a political heavyweight, this is Sicily, and it's a crime novel, so it's not so simple as all that.
"Wonderful, eh?"
"I'm sorry, I don't understand."
"It's wonderful, that is, that someone in this fine province of ours should decide to die a natural death and thereby set a good example. Don't you think? Another two or three deaths like Luparello's and we'll start catching up with the rest of Italy."
I found it interesting that the tagline on my edition is a novel of food, wine, and homicide in small-town Sicily, which makes it sound sort of travelogue-esque; plenty of murder mysteries trade on readers'/viewers' interest in the setting, serving up atmosphere along with a puzzle.* In fact, The Shape of Water is a fairly sordid little story of sex, politics, scandal, and death, and while food features from time to time, I wouldn't say it's particularly prominent. The tagline may be drawing on the series as a whole rather than this particular installment.

I didn't call the book "gritty" there because the writing seemed a little too spare for that particular adjective. The quotes on the back compare Camilleri to Hammett and Chandler, so I have a vague notion that this is a matter of style. It wasn't my favorite; in a couple of places it felt flat rather than taut or hard-bitten or whatever. Nevertheless, there were parts that stood out, including passages that were genuinely funny, which as we all know is not easy to do.

At the end of the book I discovered endnotes which explained some of the political references and undercurrents and gave rough dollar values for the lire quoted in the text -- these notes were minimal and genuinely useful, or would have been if there were any indication in the text that they existed! Seriously, no asterisks or anything. Hopefully that was corrected in later editions; pity the translator who went to the trouble of compiling them if not.

In sum, this book didn't totally win me over but then it didn't turn me off either. I have another volume in the series (not the second one, but a later one) and I'm still going to read that one too. I didn't see anything here that would make me particularly love this series the way that readers in other languages apparently do, but neither did I dislike the book. Certainly Sicily makes a unique environment for crime stories, and I thought it was handled really well; I mean, I don't know what would actually be "realistic" but this didn't feel didactic or exoticized. I suppose that's one value of reading a translated book.

* Has anyone else seen Endeavor? The second series just aired on PBS. I never liked Inspector Morse much (although Lewis I like), but Endeavor is pretty gorgeous.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Nothing to declare

I am back!

You probably didn't even know I was gone, but I was: two weeks in Rome. It was grand. (Unintentional Grand Tour pun? No one will believe it.) I had this fine book with me, letting me impress my friends with borrowed knowledge:

It's a bit heavy, being printed with colored pictures on nice paper, and the author sometimes seems to assume that just telling you the name of the architect or artist is enough, but it was a lifesaver enough times to make lugging it around worthwhile. The pages on the Vatican Museums were essential (omigosh the Vatican Museums are ENORMOUS) and unlike most guidebooks I looked at, this one gives plenty of time to all the zillions of churches you're obviously going to want to visit.

Even better, I bought this book with the gift card from when my Something Other Than God post won the drawing at Conversion Diary.

It's a major award!
Even if I had spent my own money though: worth it. I think I will be revisiting the Blue Guide series for future travels.

Now, I must get unpacked, do the laundry, and get reading something so I can post again in a reasonable interval. Hashtag: summer.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

"'How nasty,' I said tactfully."

Margaret has agreed to marry Syl; well, not so much agreed, as remained silent when he asked and he's taken it from there. Syl is twice her age -- he's her mother's contemporary -- and it's plainly obvious that Margaret's embarrassed and repulsed by him, but she's paralyzed and desolate and meanwhile the wedding is drawing nearer and nearer. What is going on with Margaret? And who is going to put a stop to this?

The Summer House [by Alice Thomas Ellis; there are a lot of other The Summer Houses out there] is a "trilogy" -- three novels that describe the events leading up to Margaret's wedding day from different perspectives. It seems more correct to call it a "triptych" but that's pretentious and I defer to the publisher. Anyway, the first novel (...novella? I'll stop now) is from Margaret's perspective, the second from Syl's mother's, and the third is in the voice of Lili, a free-spirited half-Egyptian friend of Margaret's mother. I don't know how to describe it -- the books manage to unfold incomplete information in a way that you don't necessarily realize what you don't know; so that, for instance, you think you have found out what has traumatized Margaret... and then you find out a little more which colors your initial understanding... and then you find out more which turns the whole thing on its head. Even just finding out someone's true motivation feels like a sea change. It's dramatic and subdued all at once in a way that feels, somehow, very true to life.

When I got to the last twenty pages I was completely gripped and had to bring the book with me to finish it. The pattern of the three novels is a little counterintuitive: you start with the person most closely involved in the planned wedding and move out to the wedding guest; but then, as you'll see, you are also paradoxically moving from the person who knows least about what's going on to the person who knows the most. There's some dark stuff here, definitely, but I think this makes a good summer read. Plus: it has "summer" in the title and it has those sweet teacups on the cover of my copy.

Friday, June 20, 2014

DVDs are basically books now, right?

...complete with the faint air of obsolescence that comes with physical media nowadays.

Ivanhoe's going... great... in the sense that I keep seeking out other things to read and forgetting that, technically, I already have a book going. And recently I've devolved to watching moving pictures in order to avoid reading it; which means I've disqualified myself for At least she's reading! No sympathy please; I'm not even reading. (Except for the sociology articles, travel guides, and various spiritual books.)

First of all, you will be pleased to know that I have now seen Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel (or as I like to think of it, Anne of Green Gables 2: The Gable-ing). What a thing of glory. If I had seen that in my prime Anne years, I would have been a dead duck. The dresses, the hats, the red hair, the monkeyshines, the GILBERT. I seriously appreciated how the film ended right after Anne and Gilbert get engaged, because what else is there?

Nothing. There is nothing else.
I watched it with some other girls (also a bottle of bourbon and a pan of brownies) (#adults) and there was spontaneous clapping and cheering at the end. Also, one of us (*ahem*) shouted "Gil, no, I've been such a fool!" during The Gazebo Scene, and there was much speculation about the poofy hairstyles. So all in all, a massively rewarding four hours and I might need to own that and watch it weekly now.

Switching tracks... did you know there's a BBC version of the Barchester Chronicles? I probably should have known; I probably would have guessed it; but I didn't know it specifically until Super Hans brought it to my attention. Yes, I was lying around watching Peep Show (which is really too explicit for me and I have to skip over lot of scenes but it's still funny so I keep coming back), and the show's resident lover of crack brandished a DVD of Barchester Chronicles as the perfect viewing material for a hard-partying gig at a music festival. "Don't pigeonhole me, dude," quoth Super Hans. "Ecclesiastical politics when you're high. These guys really knew how to do a fucking number on each other." I laughed really hard, but I was also thinking, "oh, I want to watch that."

I should state that I was not high at any time when I watched this. The Super Hans joke did elevate my enjoyment of it though. The DVDs I got from the library had a stale B.O. smell that was as inexplicable and improbable as it was intense, so I sort of imagine a graph of people who have checked these out as looking something like this:

Yes, indeedy, there is a very young Alan Rickman in this. (The designers of the DVD cover have given him pride of place; they know where the money comes from.) The series itself is enjoyable although I don't know how hard it would be to get into without a prior appreciation of the books. This is the kind of dry-toast costume drama that gives costume drama a bad name. It's all pretty sedate and low-key, without excessive attention to things like "pacing" or "tension". There are scenes that end really abruptly and others that are weirdly drawn out; at one point a character calls over another character and we watch her walk across the lawn in real time for no particular reason. The production values are charmingly low; my favorite example is that in some of the London scenes there's a background track that sounds exactly like what you get in one of those "old timey Main Street" museum exhibits.

[clatter clatter clatter] [watermelon watermelon]
But the actors are all good and do a good job bringing the characters to life. I liked seeing the apoplectic Archdeacon "in the flesh", and Alan Rickman does a great job as Mr Slope, which is important given that he carries so much of the story. He delivers a really smarmy proposal in a delightfully smarmy way and gets a good smack for it, so that alone is worth the price of admission. (Price of admission in this case =  $0, support your public libraries.) Netflix could suggest this and the 1995 P&P (you know whereof I speak) together under the heading of Hilariously Awkward Clerical Proposals. The first two episodes cover the book The Warden, and much like that book, they give a good introduction to the characters and local politics but the real fun comes from episode three onward so don't give up on it too soon. I could endorse just starting with episode three if you feel confident in your ability to just figure out the context clues.

So a win all the way around with my movie watching this week: I got to pass the time revisiting some favorite characters and not reading Ivanhoe, plus now I know what I'll bring with me in the tour bus if I ever become a drug-addled musician -slash- what I'll watch on Friday nights if I ever become a live-in teacher at a boarding school.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

At the intersection of "oriental" buffets and western homesteads

Lee Lien, uncertain about her identity and future, and faced with an implosion in her Vietnamese family, goes investigating a favorite childhood author, making connections between her own immigrant background and an American cultural icon along the way.

On one level that premise seems a bit trite, but in practice Pioneer Girl gets it right.

I've had this title bookmarked (read: lounging on my Amazon wish list, because capitalism has thoroughly subsumed my life and ambitions as a reader) since Meg reviewed it as an ARC. The blend of fact and fiction makes an interesting premise for a book, and it's done in a really light-handed way. Lee's life and family problems have that touch of reality to them, where things aren't always clearly defined and problems (including research problems) aren't always "solved" in any sort of final way. On the other hand, you have convincing fictional research about real women, positing a secret baby given away for adoption. You learn about the careers of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane (real), the Lien family history (fiction), and the Vietnamese/Asian experience in the Midwest (real), while Lee researches Rose's secret baby given up for adoption (fiction). It's really well blended, where a couple of times I flipped back to read the author's bio just to remind myself that Beth Nguyen is not Lee Lien and therefore it's probably not totally scandalous to be revealing Rose's baby in a novel.

Right, I'd better go study this some more.

In her review, Meg writes "I had some feelings about Rose’s secret child, but I Had Feelings over the improper archival methods." It's true. Lee steals a few things during her research and I had to put the book down at one point, this was so upsetting to me.

There should be warnings on books that feature scholars doing this kind of thing. I was made happy again, however, when one of Lee's friends points out that she's going to have trouble publishing anything based on stolen materials. THANK YOU. It gets glossed over a bit (at the end, Lee's working on an article but it's not clear how she's going to get over the theft problem) but my eternal thanks to the author for acknowledging this. One thing I liked, otherwise, was how realistic Lee's research was: she's drawing plausible conclusions but you can see how thin the evidence is even as you are drawn along with agreeing with her interpretations.

I picked this book up and finished it the same day, which is a testimony to how good it is. It does a great job linking "American" and "non-American" experiences, collapsing those categories along the way: the mobility of immigrants and pioneers, the drama of success and failure along very small margins, the strain these things place on family life, and the difficult expectations created for the next generation.

Friday, June 6, 2014

This book is much funnier than I am, so this post was always going to be a little bit of a let-down

I really like the title of this book, let's just get that out of the way up front.

more orange in real life
Him Her Him Again The End of Him was given to me by (of course) Alice (my go-to local book blogger). I see it was published in 2007, while I was still an undergrad; so it's an extremely recent book in other words. *cough*

On the back, Melissa Banks says it "may be the funniest book I've ever read. The funniest." Well, I dunno about that quite, but it is very funny. The story is narrated in the first person by a hapless young woman who meets a fatuous philosopher in grad school at Cambridge and deludes herself for years that he loves her and isn't just using her in increasingly transparent and egotistical ways. It's a funny set up done well, with the humor coming not only from the plot and the writing (wording? you know: quotable lines and suchlike), but also from the gap you can see forming between reality and the narrator's version of events. I was slightly disappointed that the plot and the settings (Cambridge, sketch comedy shows in New York) were a bit predictable/stereotypical, but the execution is so good it's nothing I couldn't get over.

Books about grad students who turn out to be totally clueless and fail to live up to expectations and end up exasperating their supportive parents might just be a little bit too close to home for me to really gin up a lot of enthusiasm, though. I think it's safe to say that everyone has fears about their life, about awful things that could happen or that things in general might not "turn out". Obviously it's not great any time you get reminded of those fears and anxieties, but somehow it's a little more sad when you find those feelings mixing in with your enjoyment of a book, especially one that is (I can't stress this enough) really funny.

Can you even believe how depressing I'm managing to make this post about a humorous book that I'm writing on a Friday? I swear I don't do these things on purpose.

There is really no reason for this to be a gif, internet, stop showing off
But then, I suppose one of the Purposes Of Literature is to make you think about things that might be scary and to work through some of that anxiety in a fictional context. And I have to admit that while I certainly wouldn't want to be the heroine of this book, since finishing it and thinking about it, I have felt slightly more secure about not being her. Although if I really don't want to be her I should be writing my introduction instead of this blog post (whoops).

Well, there you go. Good talk, guys.