Monday, July 31, 2006

So long, so long!

No, I mean it's BEEN so long. I'm so sorry, dear reader. Can I call you D.R.?

I could explain my busyness, but that's irrelevant (as I impressed upon Rebecca this weekend, this blog is ONLY about books). But I can give another, more relevant excuse; I've been reading a lot of YA material that wasn't so great as to merit discussion. When I try to think back on what I've read this month, what stands out is the Lois Lowry, which ranged from okay to very disappointing. Seriously, don't read Messenger. It's a great setup, and then a sudden, pointless, deus ex machina ending. Not at all.

But what was great, what surprised and impressed the heck out of me, was Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. This was a wonderful, delightful book, and I would recommend it to almost anyone, which is saying something. It proves that something really literary doesn't have to skimp on storytelling. It makes use of the shape of the story in unconventional ways, both to make its thematic points, and to build tension and anticipation in lives of the characters.

The only potential drawback is something that I actually believe to be a strength--the styles. The structure of the novel is in six stories, each in a different setting and somewhat different style. It ranges from a published journal in the South Seas in the mid-1800s, to a future dystopian interview, and further. Some of the stories take getting used to (spelling, syntax, etc), and each one relies heavily on its own style. I can't wait to hear what book clubbers are going to say about that chapter, which was very well executed.

I'm also reading Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. It's so good, well-written, friendly and comfortable. I just wish it was more convincing. Well, I don't necessarily mind that it wasn't convincing, I suppose, it's just that it feels full of holes to me. My English teacher used to ask us who, living or dead, real or fictional, we'd like to invite to a dinner party. I think I'm adding C.S. Lewis to my list, which included, so far, Oscar Wilde, Charlotte Bronte, Anne Shirley, and John Watson, M.D. (you need listeners at a party like that).

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Way Behind

And believe it or not, I'm not way behind on books. Just on everything. This has been a heck of a day, and I sort of feel everything creeping up on me. The stuff that urgently needs to be done right NOW is getting in the way of all the things that really need to be planned ahead. Like, say, the ENTIRE FALL. Ugh.

Bookwise, I'm not in a much better headspace. I'm reading two very dense, difficult books, and one quickly read but somewhat personally challenging book. And I'm feeling the temptation of something delicious that's been offered.

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, is the current book club pick. Did I mention this? How the first sentence on the back cover is about his postmodern brilliance? And how the blurbs compare the author to Phil Dick, Nabokov, and I think Kurt Vonnegut? Isn't that a bit much? Anyway, there's nothing wrong with it, per se, but it's not exactly engaging. So far it reads like short stories--the sections are far apart in time, character, and intent. But if they were short stories, they would either be more subtle, or have more of a point. So I assume this is all going to come together somehow. Not sure I care.

Then there's Emergence, can't remember the author, too lazy to look. This is a YA sci fi book about a girl who's part of the next generation of humans, who are all supergeniuses and were immune to the bioterrorist attacks that wiped out the human race. It would actually be just pretty enjoyable, except that it's in the form of a journal written by someone who believes that almost all articles and pronouns are extraneous to language. It's readable, but slow, slow. It's good, the plot is driving me along, but really driving me--it's a carrot and whip situation, with her adventures being the carrot and the thought of spending all this time on a book I don't even finish being the whip. I know, I know, good time after bad. Still.

Then there's Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, by Ann Lamott. I don't like it as much as I liked her Travelling Mercies, and I think it's because the latter was, though essays, a coherent narrative about her discovery of her own spirituality. This is just sort of a jumble of essays about trying to be a good person and mostly being a touchy, cranky person who I probably wouldn't get along with, and hating George Bush. She's very sensitive. Still, she seems to know some things. This reminds me of Girl Meets God in some ways--in that she admits to being flawed and forgives herself immediately. But somehow it's not as offensive as that book was.

And now Michelle has lent me Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult, which I'd love to just read. And I have Messanger by Lois Lowry, which is YA and Lois Lowry and will be short and easy and pleasing. And it's hard not to turn away from these challenges, after a day like this. But I will persevere. I will finish Plan B, and then make Cloud Atlas my bedside book. And I'll find time for all these things, and not let my life beat me down. Fiction is good for that.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Who brought the cat? Would....

So, how do you feel about Margaret Atwood? I've never quite been sure. I read The Handmaid's Tale in high school, and I thought I enjoyed it, though I was bewildered and somewhat turned off by the views it had on sex. I thin I was too young to quite get which bits were shocking and which merely disquieting. (For the record--intercourse with your owner while holding his wife's hand--shocking. Prostitution as an escape from this lifestyle--disquieting.)

Anyway, then I read The Robber Bride in college, and I really enjoyed it. I think the guidance of a professor helped--the characters and relationships are never quite tidy in her work, and it's taken me a long time to get comfortable with untidiness in novels. But I knew which characters I liked and didn't like, even while they were being complicated, so that was great.

Then I read Alias Grace. I actually listened to it on tape, and though it was an abridged version, it was excellent. The narrator did a marvellous job moving back and forth between the first and third person parts of the book. I'll admit that my opinion of the book was biased by the narrator; when I read it recently for book club, I found that I was far more sympathetic to Grace than others. The sweet, hypnotic voice, complete with Irish lilt, that the narrator had put on for Grace's first person sections had convinced me of her innocence more than anything--I couldn't argue when others brought up doubts inherent in her story. But I couldn't buy them, either.

So, we're 3 for 3 at the time of reading, maybe more like 2 out of 3 in retrospect--I don't think I'd enjoy rereading The Handmaid's Tale. So why do I think of her as a writer I'm not sure of?

Well, there are her stories. I've officially decided that liking someone's novels is no indicator of whether I'm going to like their stories, and vice versa. (Barbara Kingsolver is another example of this.) I tried to read Wilderness Tips, and though I couldn't name anything wrong with it, I didn't enjoy it and didn't finish it. I know the one about the cyst in the candy box just kicked me right over the edge.

Then there's The Blind Assassin. You can't even say I didn't like that, because I didn't make it past page five. It's far too conceptual for me--the story within a story within a story, and I'm pretty sure, that's all within a story and told through newspaper clippings. It's just too much, trying too hard, too proud of itself. I really do intend to try someday, but I would not be terribly surprised or disappointed if that day never came.

So why do I doubt her? I just read Lady Oracle, expecting it to be something I wouldn't enjoy or want to read. And in truth, there were tough moments. The narrator had some opinions that I had trouble separating from those of the author for a while. But the story was solid, good, grounded, which is not really what I would have expected from her. And I'm not sure why--the ones I've liked have had very grounded stories--Alias Grace, The Robber Bride, both well plotted, though I think of her writing as being thick with symbolism, literary flourish, words that don't do much.

It's not. Lady Oracle was really good. I wish I had gone into it with a better attitude. I have to admit, I'm really only beginning to appreciate and understand stories that are full of messiness, emotionally sloppy characters. The metaphor in my head is of people whose emotional furniture is straight out of the early 70s--avocado appliances that don't work very well, nubby brown couches and orange shag carpets. And maybe they have ants. These people make the most interesting characters, most of the time, but I've only recently come to terms with them. So I guess now I can call myself a Margaret Atwood fan.