Monday, April 27, 2009

The Autograph Man

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith
- audio version read by Steven Crossley

Alex-Li Tandem sells autographs. His business is to hunt for names on paper, collect them, sell them, and occasionally fake them — all to give the people what they want: a little piece of Fame. But what does Alex want? Only the return of his father, the end of religion, something for his headache, three different girls, infinite grace, and the rare autograph of forties movie actress Kitty Alexander. With fries.

The Autograph Man is a deeply funny existential tour around the hollow trappings of modernity: celebrity, cinema, and the ugly triumph of symbol over experience. It offers further proof that Zadie Smith is one of the most staggeringly talented writers of her generation.

My first experience with Zadie Smith was when I picked up a copy of White Teeth soon after it was released as a trade paperback. I couldn't get into the novel at that time so it languished on my shelves and has now disappeared into a box somewhere. I wasn't sure if I'd like The Autograph Man, but I've been reading a good deal of audio books lately so I thought I'd give it a go when I came across an unabridged version.

I found the prologue (and the death of Li-Jin) somewhat disturbing, but I kept going as I had the audio in the car. Smith is unapologetically and brutally honest and while the novel is full of witty light-hearted observations and sometimes zany plot twists one can't help but feel deeply for Alex-Li, who is clearly lost and on the brink.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

book clubbing in April

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

This is the story of what it's like to grow up in high school. More intimate than a diary, Charlie's letters are singular and unique, hilarious and devastating. We may not know where he lives. We may not know to whom he is writing. All we know is the world he shares. Caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it puts him on a strange course through uncharted territory. The world of first dates and mixed tapes, family dramas and new friends. The world of sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, when all one requires is that perfect song on that perfect drive to feel infinite.

It was particularly interesting to read this book after last month's selection, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, as the two are both very similar to and completely different from each other.

Like Curious Incident, The Perks of Being a Wallflower gave us lots to discuss. Chbosky touches on so many issues -- being gay (closeted and uncloseted), sexual abuse, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, abortion -- and he does it in a way that incorporates seamlessly into the overarching story.

Charlie is a sympathetic character and we were surprised to find that the book ended up being a page-turner for us. There is a definitely sense of knowing that something is coming, which both propels the reader and causes him/her to jump to unmerited conclusions along the way.

There were a few things in the book that didn't ring true to me (re. being a teenager), but I was the only one at our meeting who felt that way then again, I'm the youngest and closest to my high school years (a contemporary of Charlie's) so make of that what you will.

Of those who read the book, I was the one who liked it least (which pleasantly surprised me). What impressed me most about our reaction to the book, though, was one person's excitement about passing her copy of the book along to her nephew.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Rouseabout

The Rouseabout by Rachel Treasure
- audio version read by Miranda Nation

I received a copy of the audio book from someone who lives down under. I have to say that Bolinda does a fantastic job with their audios. The reader is great, the music feature is nice and not overused, and each CD is divided into lots of tracks so that you can easily pick up where you left off.

Kate Webster is a loveable larrikin* who likes to play hard now and worry about the consequences later. She can't help mucking up the opportunities life gives her. Rocked by the death of her mother, she takes on a dare at one of Australia's wildest rural social events - a Bachelors & Spinsters ball - to 'scalp' gorgeous farm boy Nick McDonnell. It's a dare that changes everything. For just as Kate is ready to start her new life, away from her grieving father and the pressures of the family farm, she discovers she is pregnant.

Now, several years later, with toddler Nell by her side, its time for Kate to come home to face the music - and the father of her child.

Set primarily in rural Tasmania, The Rouseabout follows Kate Webster as she finally gets over herself and grows up. That sentence makes it sound like the novel is chick lit, but I can assure you that it is most decidedly not. It is more serious than playful and it deals with some tough issues.

When I first started listening, I really wasn't sure about this book. I couldn't relate to Kate who was drinking and carousing and possibly neglecting her daughter, but once all the subtleties of the story started being revealed I got into it and ended up really enjoying it (and being able to relate to Kate despite the fact that she's not at all like me). Overall I really liked this book. There were certain things that happen in it that I'd have preferred didn't happen,** but I know why Treasure made them happen and understand why they were important to the story and the development of the characters.

* a person given to comical or outlandish behavior, a hoodlum. (This, and Russell reading Reading the OED is making me want to do make something of the idea I've had about periodically featuring interesting words that I come across in my reading on the blog).
** without spoiling anything I can say that I specifically took exception to what happened to Will.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Another Book Meme

1. What author do you own the most books by?
If I exclude series-books, it's certainly Milan Kundera.

2. What book do you own the most copies of?
Probably the Bible seeing how many copies I've been given over the years.

3. Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?

4. What fictional character are you secretly in love with?

5. What book have you read the most times in your life?
It depends. Read from, then the Bible. Read all the way through, maybe Little House on the Prairie. It was a childhood favorite.

6. What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?
No idea. Probably one of the Babysitters Club books or The Witch of Blackbird Pond, I remember reading that one in 5th grade, or maybe Tituba of Salem Village.

7. What is the worst book you've read in the past year?
I'm getting better at giving up on books that aren't working for me.

8. What is the best book you've read in the past year?
I love the Stravaganza books. I read one in the past year and the others thirteen or fourteen months ago.
I published a list of the books I liked best from my 2008 reading list in this post. I'm doing a horrible job of keeping track of my 2009 reading list.

9. If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?
I'd offer a choice of two: Zahrah the Windseeker or All We Know of Love by Katie Schneider. I loved both of these books and most people have never even heard of them.

10. Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for literature?
Milan Kundera, most definitely.

11. What book would you most like to see made into a movie?
I'm generally not a fan of adaptations, but maybe The Sixteen Pleasures. The story is interesting and there are some goofy things like the protagonist's alter ego that I think would be easy to portray in film.

12) What book would you least like to see made into a movie?
The God of Small Things. I don't think there's any way a film (no matter how lush) could do it justice.

13. Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.
I'm sure I've had some, but I can't think of an example off the top of my head.

14. What is the most lowbrow book you've read as an adult?
Most? I'll openly admit that I read lots of lowbrow stuff. If I had to choose one, I'd say Coming Round the Mountain.

15. What is the most difficult book you've ever read?
Ulysses, ugh.

16. Do you prefer the French or the Russians?
Russians, probably.

17. Roth or Updike?

18. David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?
Eggers, I guess.

19. Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?
Shakespeare, I suppose. Not really my area.

20. Austen or Eliot?

21. What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?

22. What is your favorite novel?
The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa. (see also question 28)

23. Play?
The Physicists by Duerrenmatt.

24. Short story?
"Encyclopedia of the Dead" by Danil Kis.

25. Epic Poem?
Oh, I don't know. I tend not to read much poetry.

26. Short(er) poem?
Again, I don't know. My favorite poetry books are Aloud and Invitation to the Voyage.

27) Work of non-fiction?
The Big Book of Martyrs. I know that seems like a cheeky answer, but I'm having a hard time with these favorites-questions. Other nonfiction that comes to mind: the OED, Imaginary Homelands,...

28. Who is your favorite writer?
I usually say that Kundera is my favorite writer, but that The Storyteller is my favorite book. Honestly, though, I haven't reevaluated these answers for a few years.

29. Who is the most overrated writer alive today?
I'm not sure I have an answer for this one. Paul Coelho maybe?

30. What is your desert island book?
The Complete Works of Shakespeare. A desert island book would need to stand up to multiple rereadings and this behemoth would have lots of variety.

31. And ... what are you reading right now?
I'm most actively reading God's Mercy by Kerstin Ekman, but I also have a number of other books in progress including The Autograph Man and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Little Bee

Little Bee is another title that taunted me from the library's recent acquisitions list so it had to be this month's book of the month for the student services blog. I was intrigued by the cover art (and a review that made its way into my inbox via Powell's Books' Review-a-day newsletter), but I was hooked from the first line: "Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl."

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

A powerful and moving novel, Little Bee tells the story of two very different women connected by one horrific event.

Narrated in turns by Little Bee, a teenager fleeing Nigeria, and Sarah O'Rourke, a women's magazine editor with a seemingly perfect life in London's suburbs, the novel begins in the middle of the story, slowly revealing its genesis and then tripping towards its conclusion.

Written by Guardian columnist Chris Cleave, Little Bee is political but not overtly so. Full of well-drawn characters, the novel is heartwrenching and profoundly personal. It's also very difficult to write about without giving away too much of the plot, which is the last thing I'd want to do as part of the experience of reading the book is discovering the story through the two narrator's perspectives.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

series beginnings

Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo

Charlie doesn't want to believe it when he discovers that he can hear the thoughts of people in photographs. But his horrible aunts are delighted — it means he is one of the chosen, and must change schools and attend the Bloor's Academy for gifted children. Once there, Charlie realizes that some of his classmates have equally mysterious powers. Soon Charlie is involved in uncovering the mysterious past of one of them. With the help of this friend Benjamin and his eccentric, gifted Uncle Paton, they discover the truth despite all the dangers that lie ahead.

The first book in the Children of the Red King series (often unfairly compared to the Harry Potter books), Midnight for Charlie Bone is a strong opener. Yes, there is a special school, but it's for all sorts of gifted students not just those with magical talents (and the talents are really one-of, each person seems to have one distinct magical ability). Yes, there are difficult relatives, but they're magically-endowed and the ones pushing Charlie to go to the special school. Yes, there is an evil force in the world, but it is as yet incompletely defined. Magic is underground, but those with magical abilities coexist with normal people. The great overarching mystery seems to be the genesis of the magical powers, the Red King.

Charlie is sympathetic and his life is full of interesting characters. I'll definitely be reading the other books in the series.

Wolf Girl by Theresa Tomlinson

Cwen, a poor weaver struggling to make a living at Whitby Abbey, is accused of possessing a valuable necklace; if found guilty she could be hanged. Wulfrun, Cwen’s daughter, sets out to prove her mother’s innocence.

Set in turbulent Anglo-Saxon times, this is the story of a resourceful dauntless heroine, determined and clever as the wolf that she is named for. Defying rank and convention, braving wind, weather and marauding armies, Wulfrun shows that courage has its own just reward.

I was so pleased when I realized that this coming-of-age adventure story is the first in a trilogy. I enjoyed reading Wolf Girl very much. While the book is set in the mid 600s, an extremely difficult period to make accessible to young modern readers, Tomlinson is able to make the story both historically accurate and approachable (one of the things she does to make the story more manageable for the reader is to use modern place names and the simplest forms of person names).

Wulfrun is a sympathetic character who I think kids today will be able to relate to. Many of the other characters are complex and fully-drawn. The story is engaging and its resolution leaves the reader hungry for more. I look forward to the follow-up books being published.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

New Pathways, take two

I posted about New Pathways for Sock Knitters by Cat Bordhi after completing my first project from the bookk two months ago (this post). I mentioned in that post that I'd wanted to try out one of her coriolis patterns.

Bordhi's Coriolis architecture takes its name from the Coriolis effect and features a column of stitches that masks the increases in the arch area and then continues to spiral around the sock.

This week I completed my first coriolis project following the Spiraling Master Coriolis Pattern and using the "master numbers" (numbers based on foot measurements and gauge that are supposed to ensure a perfect fit).* I used A Swell Yarn Shop's Duets Sock Yarn (Original) in the Beau Monde colorway and size US 3 (3.25 mm) double-pointed needles.

I have to admit that I'm not completely sure about the master numbers. They didn't seem to work for me in this pattern. Coming out of the first toe I noticed that they were going to be too big, so I ripped back and proceeded to tweak the numbers as I moved from section to section. I'll admit that I may have been overzealous in my adjusting of the numbers, but the result was a very short sock (this image shows the second sock unstretched next to the first). They fit well, but only because the yarn is very stretchy and I know that I'm going to be wearing holes in the toe.

It seems that I'm not the only one who had problems using the numbers with the coriolis patterns. I won't give up on the master numbers just yet. I'll try them with one of the other architectures before I determine whether they work for me or not.

* Bartholomew's Tantalizing Socks in my earlier post didn't utilize the master numbers. I knit two pairs using that pattern.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Booking Through Thursday - Numbers Game

Some people read one book at a time. Some people have a number of them on the go at any given time, perhaps a reading in bed book, a breakfast table book, a bathroom book, and so on, which leads me to...

1. Are you currently reading more than one book?


2. If so, how many books are you currently reading?
Let me see... The Autograph Man, Fun Home, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Little Bee, Miss Zukas and the Island Murders, The Rouseabout, Wolf Girl,... I guess that's six... errrr, seven. (And now that I've pulled that list together I can easily update my "currently reading" sidebar)

3. Is this normal for you?
Yep. More or less. I tend to have a number of different books going at the same time, though I try to make sure the stories are dissimilar so I can keep them straight in my head.

4. Where do you keep your current reads?
All over the place. I have a couple on my desk at work, two on the coffee table at home, one in/on my computer (audio), another in the car (audio), and one in my purse

Monday, April 06, 2009

belated book club reports

Just some quick comments on the last two book's the book club discussed

February -
Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

It's always interesting to have a nonfiction selection for book club. People who don't normally show up for meetings make an appearance and we end up with a much more diverse group for discussion.

Devil in the White City is a fascinating read. It's about the Chicago Worlds Fair, specifically architect Daniel Burham's part in making it happen, and the notorious serial killer, H.H. Holmes. Larson also weaves into the story of Chicago during 1890s threads (some smaller than others) about Frederick Law Olmstead, Buffalo Bill, Thomas Edison, and Susan B. Anthony, among others.

Larson may have bitten off a bit more than he could chew, however. While we liked the juxtaposition of the two main stories, a number of us thought that the book would have been stronger if it had been more focused.

March -
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

A heart-felt and complex coming-of-age story, Curious Incident is narrated by an autistic 15-year-old as if he was writing a murder mystery in which he's the detective.

This book was one of the best books we've read so far in terms of generating discussion. It was also a surprisingly quick read. We all liked it. We thought Christopher was a very sympathetic character and we appreciated seeing the world through his eyes.

The novel is innovative and important and most definitely worthy of the Whitbread Novel Award.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Booking Through Thursday - Library Week

I saw that National Library week is coming up in April, and that led to some questions. How often do you use your public library and how do you use it? Has the coffeehouse/bookstore replaced the library? Did you go to the library as a child? Do you have any particular memories of the library? Do you like sleek, modern, active libraries or the older, darker, quiet, cozy libraries?

OK, confession time. I actually don't have a library card for the local public library system. That's not to say I don't use libraries. I do have an NYPL card and I frequently check books out of the libraries at the university. I'm also a huge fan of inter-library loan service.

I do like going to bookstores and browsing and was very much in the habit of using the bookstore as a library for a while, but we have definitely been buying less. We've been getting books through BookCrossing and book trading sites like BookMooch. Now I tend to only buy books if I'm planning to keep them permanently or as gifts.

Many of my childhood memories have to do with the library. I wrote about one of them in this post. Personally I like both "sleek, modern, active libraries" and "older, darker, quiet, cozy libraries" for different reasons.