Saturday, December 25, 2010

Interpreter of Maladies : Jhumpa Lihiri

Interpreter of Maladies
By Jhumpa Lihiri

I couldn't finish this.  After a few stories, it seemed like it was the same tone, the same points and the same tricks in writing that were being deployed.

The perspective always seemed to an outsider one, focusing on the flaws of different characters, whether they be an ugly-American or the flaws of a husband, whatever it was, it had an all-too-familiar university, intellectual type tone to it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Manazuru : Hiromi Kawakami

Manazuru
By Hiromi Kawakami
Translated by: Michael Emmerich

Intriguing, slightly mind-bending book. Kei, the female protagonist, is struggling to move on, after her beloved husband mysteriously disappeared years ago.

Kawakami fluidly jumps from describing reality to Kei's memories to a space that is not quite clear whether it's supernatural, Kei going on a crazy what-if scenario or her simply losing her sanity. However, it gets at the nature and emotions of love, especially of the feelings of someone left behind.

Simultaneously, Kawakami also explores the relationships between Kei, her daughter and her mother, who live together and who had distinctly different perspectives on Kei's husband.

An intriguing book, that still is rattling around my head a bit now.

Waiting by Ha Jin

Waiting
By Ha Jin

The writing initially reminded of writing found in kid's books. I suspect it was this passage in particular:
Beside him, chickens were strutting and geese waddling. A few little chicks were passing back and forth through the narrow gaps in the paling that fenced a small vegetable garden.
But the story quickly moves along and gets into the more substantial plot of a doctor in China, trying to work out a divorce of his wife of 15 years.

That's the short description of the plot, but in reality the doctor is one of the more passive and indecisive characters that one will read about.

He had initially agreed to marry the woman in his home-town, due to a sense of filial obligation.  His parents had selected this woman to be his wife and not long afterwards, sequentially fallen sick.  The doctor worked a day's trip away from his hometown and had essentially married in order to have someone take care of his parents.  Needless to say, his wife is a very obedient and selfless person.  Not long after their marriage, they have a daughter.

A few years afterwards, he "falls into" a relationship at the army camp that he works at and after a few cycles of the two trying to deny their relationship, his new girlfriend forces him to get a divorce with his wife.

Year after year, the wife initially accepts the divorce, but at the last minute has a change of heart.   As a result, the title refers to the girlfriend waiting on the doctor to get a divorce.  In addition, it also refers to the wife waiting on the doctor to potentially returning to his family.

The story is largely written from the perspective of the doctor; but the intent seems to be pointing out the passiveness and selfishness of the man and the accompanying rationalizations that accompany it.  Ha Jin does a fine job of exploring and elucidating the psychology behind the character and it's certainly valuable to read about such characters, but at the same time, it can be frustrating to have to read about them, when personalities like that exist in real-life.

Northern Lights by Tim O'Brien

Northern Lights
By Tim O'Brien

I had read and enjoyed Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried in high school and decided to pick up another of his books.

I also liked this one.

There is a tiny set of main characters: two brothers (Perry and Harvey), Perry's wife and a younger lady that flirts with Paul and dates Harvey.

O'Brien uses frequently has paragraphs with a number of shorter, descriptive sentences:   
Perry took a step and stood alone. The Greyhound brakes hissed and forms moved behind the tinted windows and Perry searched for familiar movements. The door opened with another strange hiss, and the great gray cave was transfixing, dust and trembling. Perry peered into the tinted glass.
Sometimes O'Brien puts in odd juxtapositions of sentences to help establish the Perry's middle-aged confusion and dissatisfaction with his life, which was well-done.  I also thought O'Brien's exploration of the effects of Perry being the less-favored son and some of the jealousy of his brother to be well-done as well.

Not all was perfect.  I was surprised at how long of a section there was after the blizzard event.  I was also not a fan of the whole "I've got bile in my stomach" symbolism, which felt tired.  

But all in all, a nice psychology study of the characters and decent forward momentum of the plot.

Brasyl : Ian McDonald

Brasyl
by Ian McDonald

Ugh, just tiresome writing. Contained long descriptions of environment and characters that didn't add much value to the story or characters that just made things drag on. Plot that just seemed tired and written to try to impress with knowledge of Brazil.

Pushed through the book hoping it would pick up, but it didn't.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love : Raymond Carver

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
By Raymond Carver

A collection of short stories that just rattle around in your brain. A little depressing in that a number address love that has gone wrong: divorces, violence, arguments, etc. But it's quite amazing how Carver can set-up such realistic personalities, problems, settings and tone with so few words.

The Devil's Whisper : Miyuki Miyabe

The Devil's Whisper
By Miyuki Miyube

Rather enjoyed this one. A mystery plot of unexplained deaths of young women. Not too deep, but well written and entertaining and having a concrete explanations to things, say unlike a typical Murakami ending. (Hopefully without spoiling things, the explanation kind of brought me back to the 90's when I first heard of the subject. Yet, it still had a bit of freshness to it.) Definitely wouldn't mind picking up more of Miyabe's works for an random read.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Strip: Thomas Perry

Strip
By Thomas Perry

Simply written. Not a fan of the ending, which seemed too rushed, too neatly tied off and forced in certain circumstances (the waitress, who had been a woman with a heart of gold, actually having a malicious streak). But certainly an entertaining popcorn book.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

City & the City

The City and the City
By China Mieville

Imagine if you took a city, cleaved it down the center and made two cities, sitting immediately side-by-side. Furthermore, add to it that it would be illegal for the citizens of city A to interact, touch, look, throw stuff at anything in City B and vice versa. If you so much hucked a loogie over that imaginary boundary line, you would be hauled off by some super-power that would be watching this boundary.

That's the basic assumption of this book and it's a large one that if you don't buy into, like I did not, makes the rest of dependent plot-line (a murder that crosses this boundary), somewhat forced.

The whole idea that a city would develop like this; well, I suppose there have been historical examples: Berlin or countries like this: South and North Korea. But part of the problem is that the historical or political why is never really explained and rather hand-waved as part of the mystery of the murder case.

Shrug, I ended up finishing this, but not without struggling to motivate myself to do so.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Children of Men : P.D. James

Children of Men
P.D. James

(Sorry in advance for the rather disturbing book cover image.  Amazon only had that one.)

A bit disappointing.  The large driving premise of this book is the what-if scenario of all men inexplicably become infertile, leading to no children being born and human-kind going on its way to a slow extinction.

That is a massive question with huge implications on how society would react to such an event, economically, religiously, scientifically, and it seemed like James bit off more than she could chew with it.  Despite a large part of the book dedicated to probing some of these effects, her exploration came across as insufficient and done more to establish an "interesting" and semi-fleshed out set-up for the archetypal thriller story.

Strangely, the protagonists' story was flat and under-developed as well, the characters coming across as one-dimensional, with the romance angle seeming particularly out of the blue.

Shrug, I did not see the film, but I cannot imagine it being that much better if the source material was that not well worked out.

Friday, June 04, 2010

The designer

Excelsior gripped the stick, held it downward at a 45 and made gentle jabbing motions.

He frowned, lifted up the stick and pulled a small iron weight upwards a centimeter and counterclockwise around the stick a half-degree.

Then he again swung the stick downward and made the same pointing motions.

He next twisted his wrist so the stick made some loose sideways-eight motions.

His frown loosened and he let out a quiet hmmph of satisfaction. On the desk nearby lay a 0.7mm Parker Sonnet Indigo Mechanical Pencil, which he took up and used to record the measurements he had just taken in precise, straight strokes.

His eyes scanned the rest of the page and then the next 10 pages, which were full of numbers and diagrams. He occassionally eyed the stick that he had lain down next to him.

He held impeccable posture.

13 minutes and 50 seconds later, he heaved a long sigh, tapped the papers into order and placed them into a large envelope with address and stamp, already written and placed respectively on the envelope. He dabbed the glue of the envelope lid moist with a wet sponge piece and precisely drew two fingers along the edge to press it closed. He then stuck it out of his mail slot and lifted the flag to indicate mail pick up.

Afterwards, he sat down on his minimal cot, turned 90 degrees, laid down and fell asleep.

The night passed. At 5:15 am, he opened his eyes and turned his head to the door.

He went back to sleep.

The night passed. At 5:15 am, he opened his eyes and turned his head to the door.

He went back to sleep.

The night passed. At 5:15 am, he opened his eyes and turned his head to the door.

A package was there.

He sat up, grabbed the shirt neatly folded to his side and briskly, but not hurredly put it on.

Next his pants.

Then his slippers, first his right, then his left.

He stood and went to the package, which was long and rectangular and wrapped in brown wrapping paper.

With three efficient strokes of an exacto knife, he cut the paper and opened the box inside and removed the contents.

His eyes scanned the object from right to left.

Next he picked it up and felt the weight, bobbing it up and down in his hand.

He then pointed it downward and made the same gentle jabbing motions as before.

Lastly, his left hand traced the surface of the object from bottom to tip.

He looked to the side deep in thought, then placed the object down.

He left the room for 8 minutes.

When he returned, he walked purposefully towards the object.

He picked up the toilet scrubber and went back to the bathroom.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Google How to Save the News

The Atlantic has an interesting article on how Google is working to save the news.  As interesting as I find some of the quotes and observations made by Google execs and employees, I find Google News simply unusable.  I simply cannot focus on anything that looks worthwhile reading.  They really need to tap into the old newspaper knowledge on to graphically design a news page.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Grey Sock

The lone grey sock felt like it had nothing more it could give.

A psychologist would probably have diagnosed the grey sock with having depression, but the sock did not have such meta thoughts. It was a sock after all.

So when its owner was distracted trying to open the laundry room door, the lone grey sock, or S, as it referred to itself, unceremoniously leaned over the ledge of the laundry basket and tumbled to the ground.

After the door had shut, S did not scream "Freedom!" or "Hooray for no more dance parties!" or "No more forgetting to remove me before unbelievably tacky-looking sex!" Please do remember that this was a sock and not some faux rebellious teenager. And in addition, it was certifiably depressed and all of the emotions and color had been drained from its view of life.

Instead, S inch-wormed itself slightly off-skew of the center of the hall, the logic being to best position itself to, ironically after so many years of being on a foot, be kicked by an unobservant passer-by.

And sure enough a brunette twenty-something year old girl, dressed in a slim white dress, with a cell phone propped in between her head and right shoulder, a leash tied to a yappy white shih tzu in one hand, and shopping bags containing an eclectic mix of make-up, a ribbon, a pint of raspberries, 3 cups of yogurt and a bag of quinoa in the other, came through on the first try. Albeit, wearing flats, the girl almost took a spill that would have embarrassed the creator of the exaggerated banana peel falls you see in movies; nevertheless, she managed to kick S forward near the door leading to the outside of the apartment building.

Now, the area near the door was the most likely place for S's adventure to come to an early end. In the best-case scenario, another passer-by would, like the young girl had, inadvertently boot S outside onto the Philadelphia sidewalks. In the worse scenario, however, a snooty resident might spot S and kick it to the corner, so that a disgusting sock would not, God forbid, sour the clean modern aesthetic of the apartment lobby and if all was right in the world, a dutiful janitor would sweep this bandit sock out of sight into its rightful place of the trash bin. That is just the way the world works sometimes.

I should take the time to note that in no such scenario would a good Samaritan ever notice how close the lone sock was to the laundry room, pick up said sock and return it to the laundry room. No person exists, so wholesome as to pick up some stranger's single, potentially dirty sock without prompting.

To return to the story S, it did make it outside, although not without some close calls. There were plenty of dogs who sniffed at S in curiosity, a number of puzzled and/or disgusted looks (none of which S feel much better about itself), and a very close miss of tomato sauce and cheese from a slice of pizza held by a 35-year old business man, very much in a rush to go pick up his dry-cleaning before the cleaners closed at 4.

Of course, of course, of course, it was a 5 year old boy who came to S's rescue, his eyes wide with giddy excitement at having found something he could soccer-ball-dribble. And of course, his wary mother caught on and made him leave the sock alone. S was left near a newspaper box, the boy giving one last rueful glance before being pulled forward, towards children's yoga class.

S inched forward purposefully with no particular destination, always cautiously minding the sidewalk cracks. S's "mother," a 53 year old sock manufacturer employee in Fort Payne Alabama and the beneficiary of such cautiousness, noticed that her back felt unusually limber that day.

When S came across the motionless homeless man, curled up on top of the steam vent like a large shrimp on a small grill, S followed the rest of the other pedestrians on the sidewalk in giving an unnecessarily wide berth to the man. There's no telling what such a man could do.

It was one of those days, that was not cold for those popping out for a 10 minute errand, but had a devious chill that quickly set in for anyone out longer than that. And S, for the first time, suddenly missed his owner's foot. Obviously, not so much for the foul smelling, sweatiness of it that together with the stretching slowly worn down at his seams, but rather for the warmth it provided S.

It started raining.

And if you know anything at all about the world, there is nothing worse than a cold, wet sock.

Well, except for cold, wet underwear.

And speak of the devil, S had snuck into a back alley, only to find itself cloth to cloth with a cold, wet pair of men's boxer briefs, size S (28-32) and black as the night.

The two fierce pieces of undergarments sat motionless for a few minutes, contemplating the consequences of an all-out battle.

To the uninformed observer, it was a bizarre sight that quickly led to some uncomfortable questions. Was there some man, who was running around without his underwear and with only one sock on? How did this go down? Perhaps there was a hormone induced young couple that could not resist the throes of their passion any longer?

A second imaginary, astute observer might have responded: No. There was no female clothing or any male outer garments to be seen.

No outer garments! Gasp! Did someone...

Did someone poop themselves and have to dispose of their sundered undergarments?

If anyone were to come to such a conclusion, I hope to hell that on a cold, rainy day or any day for that matter, they would not have the desire to investigate whether they had correctly hypothesized or not.

Meanwhile, a nearby traffic light turned green and almost as if by some sort of law, a young man unnecessarily gunned his Mustang forward, only to get stuck behind a bus not 10 feet away.

The young man cranked up his rap music in compensation.

The bouncing bass made it too loud to hear whether the Sock v. Underwear battle had started, for apparel battles were performed by the rubbing together of fabric. Like an ape beating its chest, the rubbing sound quickly signaled many attributes, such as the quality of material, texture, the history of the apparel, etc and for the very best of the best of these duelers, all it took was a single rub and others instantly not only recognized the function of the apparel, but also the supiority in its thoughtfulness of design and manufacturing.

S did not generally have the need to duke things out, but it could hold its own when it did. S was a rather unique sock, one with toes especially made for runners. Over its lifetime, S had proved its worth, having been dragged through the smelliest of mud pits, washed with ocean salt water and baked stiff and dry on flat rocks in the focused Baja California sun.

S made a tense scrunching up motion, an act whether made out of nervousness or just in preparation, only the sock gods knew.

S spoke first.

.

The rain continued to tap at the pavement and bounce off the tops of umbrellas.

Passing cars made that distinctive sound of tires rolling on wet pavement.

And yet there was silence from S's boxer-brief opponent.

Puzzled, S called out again, slightly louder and a bit bolder.

Still nothing.

A car splashed through a nearby puddle that concealed a large pot hole. The chasis yelped in complaint.

Just when S was about to speak for a third time, he heard a response. Spoken slowly, almost inaudibly.

S froze.

It was a familiar voice.

The Peachtree roadrace, the Bay to Breakers, the Kentucky Derby marathon flashed before S...

One might say that the underwear before him and S had shared the same owner, playing a part on a cohesive running apparel team from 2002 to 2004.

The owner had referred to the underwear as Defs. The explanation the owner publicly provided was "definite win." Privately, however, the owner spent a few seconds longer than necessary checking himself out in the mirror with them on and thinking to himself, "definite win."

It was jarring enough for S to encounter such a blast from the past in such an unexpected situation.

But it was a double shock, when S realized that Defs had just spoken its last words.

S had gotten to that alleyway just in time to witness Defs' elastics giving out.

S wriggled its toes, ruminating for a whole minute, thinking in a sock-manner about its existence.

... It then continued on its journey to nowhere.



Later that day, posted on Philadelphia Craigslist's Missed Connections:

Defs, I don't know where you are, but today I had pang of nostalgia. As you know, I can no longer run, but I sometimes like to put on the old gear and imagine myself at the starting line. I miss you, you made me look good.

P.S. One lost, grey Injinji sock. Last seen in the Dorchester. If you've seen it, please email or call me at xxx-xxx-xxxx.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Zip up, please.

He had crossed the men's bathroom ettiquette and he knew it. He had turned around early before unzipping.

Ice Cream

There is no way to eat an ice cream cone and look elegant.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Matcha Tea

Strange.

Matcha green tea.

That experience, that flavor, that texture in matcha green tea was how she would describe the situation later.

And not the cheap matcha green tea either, with its bland, purposely inoffensive front flavor and its mild but still unpleasant graininess.

But the good stuff - stuff with tonality, richness, narrative, depth.

It was really the subtlety that caught her off-guard, since work always seemed to be about going from extreme to extreme.  Lay-offs, a boss chewing out a subordinate, heinously inappropriate emotional outbursts: those experiences physically gave her a sharp twisting pain in her lower abdomen.  On the other hand, finishing a successful project, connecting honestly with a co-worker, getting earnest praise from someone she respected.  She felt those in her neck and upper back, feelings that would amp up to an almost violent, electric trembling, depending on the level of her satisfaction.

But this.

The respective parties had arrived with the sole purpose of socializing with each other. 

No.  That wasn't it.  She had been to relaxed get-togethers before.

It was as if everyone had agreed to pre-freeze their respective Saturday afternoons into large ice cubes and were now sumptuously bathing in their shimmering, ice-time-melt.  Hmm, she might have to work on that metaphor.  Never my strength, she thought.

But the point was that the atmosphere simply felt luxurious. 

She leaned back in her lawn chair and rolled her tongue over her teeth. 

A wide-eyed sun hugged her cheeks, chin and nose in that order.

She swore she could even taste that oh-so-slight grainy texture in her mouth. 

The gentle burps and blorps of the sloshing shifting pool water lightly resonated in her ears.

She closed her eyes.

And at that very moment, a memory of Lacey, her elegant, doting dog, who had for so many years, represented the pinnacle of tranquility and who had passed five years ago, violently broke through her conscience.

She sat up, tapping on her left knee with her pinky finger, slightly annoyed at the jarring redirection of what she had expected to be the narrative of the day.  But she knew it was for the best.  It was time for her to search for a new dog.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bathroom Discussion

It was coming.

Keep it together, Paul!  Pause your story about doubling the revenues. Hold your breath. Thumb your nose a bit. 

Shit, still no good.

"As you know, the entire industry was struggling with how to increase demand..."

See if you can sniff it back. Sniff!

"and..."

Ooh, still coming.

"... I admit at first I was stumped too..."

Sniff, sniff.

"..."

Sniff.

Paul, not too much!  You'll look like you're some kind of cocaine user!

"but at one point, I had a headache and glanced at the instructions on the Tylenol..."

*It* was oozing down.

"The instructions said to..."

Slowly at first.

"... and I thought, wouldn't it be great if we could double our demand..."

Picking up speed now.

"... couldn't double the actual usage amount..."

Oh God.

"... but we could convince consumers to..."

Oh God, no.  

"...and that's how I came up with Lather, Rinse annn..."

Ahhhhhh choooooooooo!


...

There was a tangible silence, as if a giant sponge had filled the room.

Paul slowly opened his eyes.  The sight was one of violence.

The blood that had been slowly making its way down his nostril had exploded past his much-too-late hand, across the desk and had speckled the impeccable white shirt and circular glasses of his interviewer, Mr. Johnson.

Paul gaped his mouth open a bit, like a fish gasping for air, and would have continued in that fashion, if there had not been still more blood trickling down from his nose.

"Oh dear, would you happen to have a Kleenex?"

Monday, April 12, 2010

Swiss Cheese

There was a look of quiet desperation in his eyes. Phil could get seriously insecure at moments like this.

"Please tell me what's so funny."

Dell held back laughing more, but her laughter trickled through into the crinkles of her smiling eyes.

"I'll tell you later. It was a funny joke at the office."

"So you're not laughing at me?"

"No."

When in fact she was, there was a piece of bread that had managed to somehow get caught on his budding goatee.

And strangely, with that piece of bread stuck there, Phil reminded her of a big wheel of cheese.

Swiss, specifically.

And every time he talked, all she could imagine was Phil's face, complete with goatee, plastered on top of a gigantic wheel of swiss cheese, yammering on like on some surreal combination of a late-night tv comedy show and Sesame Street.

Five days later, the bread piece had been taken out, yet Dell still could not get the mental image out of her head.

She swore she could even smell cheese whenever he came into the room.

The absolute worst was when they were making love. Having a bloody wheel of cheese huffing and puffing and sweating on top of her, it wasn't just a turn-off, it was just completely unbearable.

Two days later, she broke up with him. She gave him the "it's not you, it's me" line.

Walking away, she really could not tell whether she was lying or not.

Phil's intricate cheese break-up strategy had worked beyond his wildest dreams.

City Surprise

Jim hungrily looked around for a shimmer of curiosity in the eyes of the strangers passing by in their expensive Armani suits and organic snake-skin shoes that were so trendy these days.

But no such luck.

At best, they might just steal a puzzled glance downwards and quickly resume their purposeful walking away.

It was a good thing Jim was so patient.

He knew, eventually, one of them would come. They just wouldn't be able to resist. They just had to figure out what that puzzling triangular gray object was.

And just as they leaned over, right at that exact moment that they would lose their balance if something surprised them, he would jump into action.

Bam! A blur of white and gray! A splash of water!

So inhumanly quick that bystanders would look at each other and ask themselves what had just happened!

And it would be all explained by the newspaper the next day, with a headline in bold that read:

Sewer Shark Claims Another Victim!

The Lone Lit Window

Out for my evening stroll, I glanced upwards at the one lone window, lit among all of the ones sleeping.

Inside the rectangular frame, something shifted.

I squinted.

It was then I realized that I was looking at the full moon.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Kafka on the Shore : Haruki Murakami

Kafka on the Shore
By Haruki Murakami

I really enjoy reading Murakami books and while I found myself once again addicted to this one and flipping page after page, I did try my best to take a bit of time to analyze this one.

A few observations:

A number of Murakami's characters are introspective, interjecting random comments like the following:
Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions.  You change direction but the sandstorm chases you.  You turn again, but the storm adjusts.  Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn.  Why?  Because this storm isn't something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you.  This storm is you.  Something inside of you.  So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn't get in, and walk through it, step by step.
They split hairs about the nature of people:
People soon get tired of things that aren't boring, but not of what is boring. Go figure. For me, I might have the leisure to be bored, but not to grow tired of something.  Most people can't distinguish between the two.
Murakami tends to feature passive, cool-headed characters who wait, go with the flow and see how things turn out.  Frequently, there's a sense of powerlessness to mysterious, greater forces, which I think is what drives the pace of the book so quickly.  It's almost like the show, Lost; you always are hoping the each successive page will clear up what these mysterious forces are.
... the stars are like the trees in the forest, alive and breathing.  And they're watching me. What Ive done up till now, what I'm going to do - the know it all.  Nothing gets past their watchful eyes.  As I sit there under teh shining nigh sky, again a violent fear takes hold of me.  My heart's pounding a mile a minute, and I can barely breathe.  All these millions of stars looking down on me, and I've never given them more than a passing thought before.  Not just stars - how many other things haven't I noticed in the world, things I know nothing about?  I suddenly feel helpless, completely powerless. And I know I'll never outrun that awful feeling.  
He also adds to this by putting in two separate narrative threads and having them come together at the end, which unlike some of his earlier novels actually comes to a more concrete resolution and which actually was a bit of a disappointment in its tidyness after so much buildup.

One last thing, again in this novel, there is the missing female character, this time a missing mother.  I keep on wondering what it is about these female characters gone missing that attracts Murakami so much?

Anyhow, despite the ending, I did enjoy this one.  I think I managed to prolong its reading to 2 days, instead of the drop-everything-finish-it-in-one-sitting type deals.

Once a Runner : John L Parker Jr.

Once a Runner
by John L Parker Jr.

Loved this one.

This is a fictional story, but was written but a guy who got pretty far along in the US track and field system and who run with some of the best runners of the time, so it paints a pretty accurate mental picture of the minds of competitive runners.

Also its depiction of the running team atmosphere was pretty spot-on, reminding me a lot of my high-school cross-country experience.  Lastly, it touches upon some of the backward mentality of the south, which while I don't see quite that directly in Atlanta, can understand it better here.

Anyways, I will probably re-read this in the future.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

White Teeth : Zadie Smith

White Teeth
by Zadie Smith

The narrative was a bit meandering and long and the teeth metaphor, somewhat overdone.  Wasn't a fan of the ending, where a few of the came together a bit too neatly to be satisfying.  That being said, where this excelled was in describing of and in the analysis of personalities, their attachment to religion, beliefs, history and culture and the clashes that occur as a result.  I wish I could find the passage, but I distinctly remember a passage that got the mentality of some immigrants spot-on, without getting into the emo self-indulgent writing that I see too much in say oh Asian-American writing/movies all too often.  Anyways, somewhat worthwhile read, I'd be curious to read Smith's third novel, On Beauty, to see if some of the problems I saw here have been improved.

The Devil in the White City : Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: 
Murder, Magic & Madness at the Fair that Changed America
by Erik Larson

Loved this book.  A non-fiction that details the planning, involved in the Chicago's World Fair of 1893 and a serial killer that was drawn to the accompanying chaos.  It was cool to hear of the influence of the World's Fair, such as the decision to use alternating current electricity, which became the U.S. standard for electricity distribution, or the introduction of Shredded Wheats at the fair or the invention of a famous civil engineering structure just for this fair, which continues to amuse people to this day.

In addition to the details, the narrative for both the planning and execution of the World Fair and that of the serial killer push along quite nicely.  For being a non-fiction book, it is amazing how fun and fast a read this is.  I just wish there were more accompanying pictures, especially during the parts that they describe the architectural wonders that they built just for the world fair.

Anyways, really enjoyed this one.  

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Diplomatic Immunity : Lois McMaster Bujold

Diplomatic Immunity
By Lois McMaster Bujold

A fast read, but somewhat of a popcorn novel.  I may be missing the context of the earlier books (this is the last of a series of books focused on the Miles Vorkosigan protagonist).

This quickly becomes a detective story, set in a sci-fi setting, which makes for an interesting, page-turning stuff.  But occasionally, there just seemed random notes that are  thrown in, as if Bujold had reread a draft, found an inconsistency in her writing and had added phrases to make sure things were consistent.  For example, Miles has a high ranking position, that generally requires other characters to address him as "Lord Auditor Vorkosigan." Later in the story, during an intense scene, a character might say something without addressing his formal title and the text might follow up, saying such and such character, forgetting the formalities in the moment.  Just these random breaks in flow to cover details.

Also, the ending kind of follows a familiar feel-good ending, the protagonist and protagonist's good friend get seriously harmed, but Miles still manages to figure out the mystery and save the world, type of deal.\

Shrug, I'm guessing I'll forget about this one quickly.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Good Soldier : Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier
by Ford Madox Ford

Structured like a fireside storytelling, the protagonist explores the personalities, motivations and character of his respected, married, but habitual womanizer of the title's soldier, Edward Ashburnham, Edward's wife, the other women Edward falls in love with, himself and his own wife, who cheats on him with Edward.

It's somewhat darkly amusing that the character talks about the incident with such an unemotional, analytical perspective, like me writing this review about the novel, except he discusses the story of his own wife cheating on him as if he was helpless party to an overall driving narrative that he couldn't control.
(Mulling over Edward, who cheated with his wife).  And yet again you have me.  If poor Edward was dangerous because of the chastity of his expressions-and they say that that is always the ahll-mark of a libertine-what about myself?  For I solemnly avow that not only have I never so much as hinted at an impropriety in my conversation in the whole of my days; and more than that, I will vouch for the cleanness of my thoughts and the absolute chastity of my life.  At what, then, does it all work out?  Is the whole thing a folly and a mockery? Am I no better than a eunuch or is the proper man-the man with the right to existence-a raging stallion forever neighing after his neighbour's womenkind?
  I don't know.  And there is nothing to guide us.  And if everything is so nebulous about a matter so elementary as the morals of sex, what is there to guide us in the more subtle morality of all other personal contacts, associations, and activities?  Or are we meant to act on impulse alone?  It is all a darkness.
Interspersed throughout the book were mullings on the nature of relationships and on the characteristics of human nature that rang true, despite this being written in so long ago in 1915:
Upon my word, I couldn't tell you offhand whether the lady who sold the so expensive violets at the bottom of the road that leads to the station was cheating me or no; I can't say whether the port who carried our traps across the station at Leghorn was a thief or no when he said that the regular tariff was a lira a parcel.  The instances of honesty that one comes across in this world are just as amazing as the instances of dishonesty.  After forty-five years of mixing with one's kind, one ought to have acquired the habit of being able to know something about one's fellow beings.  But one doesn't.
Also, I found this to be a random, but humorous line as well.
I chuckle over it from time to time for  the whole rest of the day.  Because it does look very funny, you know, to see a black and white cow land on its back in the middle of the stream, It is so just exactly what one doesn't expect of a cow.
Lastly, I wanted to mention that it was refreshing reading an "older" fiction novel that had a distinctive American perspective, after being forced to read so many British historical novels in high school (ugh Thomas Hardy.)  The references to American history and some of the cultural differences between the U.S. and Britain always came as a surprise for some reason.

Anyhow, perhaps the older writing style takes some getting used to, but the overall story and the philosophizing on human nature can provoke one to think on one's own personality and relationships.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Anders Loves Maria

Just came across Anders Loves Maria, a web-comic, which just came to a conclusion and I read through the entire thing last night.  It's a NSFW strip about relationships and is more complex emotionally than some other web comics that I've read before.
[Via Mefi - be wary of link to spoiler there]

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Never Let Me Go : Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro

I've never read Ishiguro's apparent classic The Remains of the Day and the local library didn't have that, but they did have one of his later novels, Never Let Me Go, so I sprung for that instead.

And I found it to be quite engrossing and ended up finishing it the day after I started reading it.  There's actually a review quote on the back by the NYTimes book Review, which states "[Ishiguro is] Not only a good writer but a wonderful novelist," which I think sums up nicely a couple of good points of this work.

First, the writing is well-done.  For example, the first section of the novel focused on the middle-school/high-school life of the protagonist and narrator, Kathy and other main characters.  And I found that the worries, ideas and dialogue of these characters in this section particularly reminded of female friends/classmates from my own middle-school/high-school life, in that he seemed to get the perspective of not only kids of that age right, but also particularly a female perspective.

I must admit that I initially found this scoped perspective to be a bit over-simplistic and worried whether whether this was a novel geared more for young adults, but as things progressed, the significance of the simple joys and dramas really shine through.  It isn't a simple glossed-over idealistic vision of that period in one's life.

I will note that Ishiguro has a trick that he uses throughout the novel.  It is narrated in hind-site by the protagonist, Kathy, and numerous times, he describes an event, then makes a leading statement to the significance of the event in the next chapter.  For example:
We started to walk back towards the main house then and I waited for her to explain what she meant, but she didn't.  I found out though over the next several days.
For one, it propelled the story forward, perhaps explaining why I breezed through the book.  But relating to more the "wonderful novelist" portion of the earlier quote, it allows Ishiguro to gradually crescendo the feel that a much larger and menacing context surrounds the initial facts being presented and constantly has the feel that a some sort of science/societal ethics question is about to be revealed.

The latter sections describe the characters developing beyond their school years and that initial time spent describing the joys, events, and relationships of the characters during their school gives weight and emotional impact to latter events and the end-reveal.

The only qualm I had and I am trying not to spoil the story, was that the ethical quandary in question seemed like a bit of a strawman situation.  Perhaps the best parallel to describe this would be certain Hollywood movies show a small, individual business-owner with heart and humanity, struggling against unshown, but absolutely heartless employees of a mega-corporation.  Well, I hate to break it to you, but every company is run by people with their own idiosyncrasies and human concerns.  There doesn't really exist a company with simplistic, evil motives.

In any case, the minor qualm aside, it was quite an enjoyable novel and I can picture myself reading another Ishiguro's novels in the future.