Archive for 2007 books

February Flowers

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Just prior to all the nonsense I mentioned below, I finished reading a fabulous new first novel – February Flowers, by Fan Wu.  Set against of backdrop of China in the 90s, this is the story of two friends – Ming and Yan – who find themselves in an unlikely friendship.  It’s truly more of 17 year-old Ming’s story, and her intense fascination with the older Yan. 

There is a more sophisticated storyline here, one that shows us old and new China,  and the emotional realities of living in a post – cultural revolution world.  But the bits I loved best were the ones about the girls’ friendship, and the odd, familiar dichotomy of love and hate that runs through it.  The girl crush, the girl flirt, that you remember from your late teens, when the world was opening up to you in new ways.  When you met that older girl who just seemed to emulate something bigger than yourself.  Wu’s prose reads like poetry on this subject:

I wanted to follow her but instead I fell back onto my bed – a strange dizziness struck me in a kind of ecstasy.  I felt my blood pumping through my veins and crushing my organs.  A strong current of warmth permeated my heart.  I had difficulty breathing.  Never before in my life had I been so paralysed by an unspeakable emotion and so incapable or expressing my thoughts. (page 54). 

Most definitely recommended.

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remembering The Raw Shark Texts

I’ve been waiting to get my hands on this must-read book for the past few months.  After reading and hearing about The Raw Shark Texts (Steven Hall) from a variety of respectable folks, I knew I had to get to it.  And now that I have?  Most definitely worth it.  Worth the late nights I stayed up to finish it and worth the disastrous self-inflicted nail biting.

If you haven’t heard the short of the long yet, here goes:  it’s about a man who wakes up one day with no memory.  He attempts to put together the missing fragments of his life and eventually finds out that he is being chased by a conceptual shark who feeds on people’s memory.   Um yes.  A conceptual shark.  You got that, right?

There’s a lot of other movie thriller stuff here, like romances and death-defying adventure.  But mostly what it is about is memory and grief, and how the introduction of the latter can alter the former.  How one can fall so deep inside a sense of loss that all other mechanics of self-awareness disappear.   It is one of those clever meta-textual novels that can drive one to distraction, but somehow first time novelist Hall gets away with it without falling into Da Vinci Code drivel.  His narrative is fascinating, and some of my favourite sections are those which include Eric’s memories of his conversations with his dead girlfriend, Clio (enter grief as mentioned above).  Like this (page 42):

“It’s tiring not knowing people, isn’t it?”  Clio said later.

“It isn’t word-efficient.” I agreed.

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Lullabies for Little Criminals

I love me a good coming-of-age story.  Something a little dangerous and somewhat painful definitely makes the grade too.  Add to that a female character in an urban setting?  Well, I’m your best friend and most cherished confidant. 

I just finished reading Lullabies For Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill.  Wow oh wow oh wow.   I devoured this book in just a few days and ignored my family for the good part of that time.  I felt guilty for all of a second until I turned the page and entered into Baby’s world again.

For those of you who are a little lost, I am speaking of O’Neill’s 2006 debut novel.  The novel follows Baby as she negotiates her way throughout turbulent teen years living with her addict father and a life of poverty and need.  (for the record, I hate the phrase “turbulent teen years.”  What is this?  A Sweet Valley High blog entry?  But it’s all I got at 11PM  on a Sunday night – so bite me).   O’Neill captures perfectly that awkward line between childhood innocence and burgeoning adulthood, all through the eyes of a self-conscious lonely girl.   This novel doesn’t hold back, and refuses to let you go.  Baby’s simultaneous curiosity and fear at the world around her spoke volumes to me.  

But please Heather O’Neill – I need more of Baby. I need to hear more of her story. I need to know how her 20s and 30s go, and whether she makes it out the other side.  I need this.  Can’t you make that happen, please?

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I’m still here.

God maybe I shouldn’t be.  Continuing to keep this blog, I mean.  I’m so bad at keeping it updated these days.  Where have I been?

Well….the Netherlands and France for one.   Work has been ridiculously busy.  And I say that in a loving way, because while it’s great that business is booming, I find myself resenting the amount of calls I get.  Work-related calls, of course – all of my friends whom I haven’t called back in too long?  Ummm…I suck.  I know.  All I can say in my defense is that I love you but just can’t talk to you right now.  I’ll just selfishly reappear when I have time again and you can tell me to stick it where the sun don’t shine then.

One thing I have managed to keep up is the reading.  Reading on planes, in hotels, and in cabs helps me keep a dose of balance in my life (albeit too small a dose these days!).  A couple of books of note that are currently on my bedside shelf:

  • THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD.  Oh Lionel Shriver how I love thee.  Can you please move in next door and we can have a backyard over-the-fence friendship where we ruminate long into the summer night about relationships and fighting a sense of failure and drink our way through a bottle of red wine and a half-pack of smokes?  Because I know you live in the UK and you’re all Miss Literary Fancy Pants and all that, and I’m just a drab tv person who can recite the synopses from The Real Housewives of Orange County, but really REALLY I think we could hit it off.  Plus, I love your books so there’s that.
  • THE STOLEN CHILD. Now this book was a surprise for me.  I somehow stumbled across it, unaware of its recent popularity.  The only thing I had read about it was that it was a “bedtime story for adults” and god help me, I don’t even know where I saw that.  But can I say one small teeny thing to anybody out there reading this? GO READ THIS BOOK.  Without giving away any plot details, it’s a story of childhood.  Pure and simple.  Childhood, and its painful losses.

So there are two absolutely empty-headed book suggestions. Frankly, I have no brain power left these days so I’ll leave it at that for tonight.  Just wanted to at least duck in the room to wave hello quickly before I duck out again.  But I promise to visit again soon…

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books for people who like books

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Remember the summer days of awkward pre-teen years?  When you would stumble down to the local library all knock-kneed and glazed eyes from watching hours of Jack and Jennifer on the run?  Those days when crank calling all the boys from your class started to grow tiresome and you were looking for something more to do?  And then when you arrived at the beautifully air conditioned library, full of all those BOOKS and STORIES and QUIET , you almost started crying because you finally felt like home?

Well, maybe a tad dramatic but that kind of sums up my introduction to the love of the story.  Not just books, mind you, but the story.  I spent many an afternoon engulfed in good books, like A Wrinkle In Time and The Railway Children and Half Magic.  Aside from the Sweet Valley High books I was reading (and god help me, I can’t deny I also read those), the books that sucked me in were the ones with a good story.  A little suspense, maybe some fantasy and mystery here and there.  Give me a group of kids in a quandary, most likely poor and from England, and I was set for the afternoon.

 I find myself missing these type of stories in adulthood.  I’m not a huge fan of fantasy or sci-fi now, and although I do sometimes like a good crime novel, for the most part I find myself reading books that are lacking the sense of adventure that used to captivate me all afternoon. 

Recently, though, I was lucky enough to find two books that spoke to that hungry reader in me.  The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield and The Keep by Jennifer Egan are both excellent examples of these types of book:  they give good story.  They give GREAT story actually, the kind you can’t get out of your head.  The Thirteenth Tale reminds me of a very old-fashioned mystery tale, where you curl up in front of the fire while the rain pounds the window pane (oh god, I’m off on that British-children-fantasy again).  The Keep, also a mystery of sorts, is a less linear story with bits of a gothic environment and strange characters thrown in.  These two books  reek of the story-within-a-story technique, which speaks to the closet literary theorist in me (damn you, metatext!)  I’m not too proud to admit that I ignored my preschooler while wrapped up in both books (oh relax, you finger-pointers you, it’s not like she was alone! The television was on, thank you very much)

Both books are definitely books for readers.  You could argue that all books are, of course, for readers.  But some of you might know what I mean – it’s those books that called to you when you were 12 years old in the library those many years ago.  The stories that sucked you in and wouldn’t let you go.   I wish there was more of that around me these days.

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I Don’t Love You Yet, Jonathan

My love for New York has been largely documented on this blog.  There’s just something about that city that makes my heart swell.  Perhaps it’s the comfort of feeling like I’ve been there a million times.  Although, I’ve only been there a few times on business and pleasure, and therefore just seen the first layer of the city.  It’s not like I have spent days upon days in New York – only a few here and there.  So why the connection?  I think it has something to do with the fact that it’s a city that references itself back at us in so many intriguing ways.  When you see Central Park, you feel like you’ve actually been jogging there already.  Or when you see the Rockefeller tree all lit up, you feel like you’ve been coming to view the tree-lighting ceremony since you were small.

And why is this?  Because you (I mean – I) have been watching Law and Order and listening to The Magnetic Fields and Luscious Jackson for years.  You feel like you know the city because you’ve been immersed in its pop culture and mystery since you were a teenager.  I long for New York even though I barely know its name. 

Now Los Angeles?  Los Angeles I’ve only watched at a distance, through the viewmaster of 90210 and People Magazine.  It’s never been a city I dreamed about visiting, nor does it have a real reference point of longing for me. 

All of this is to say:  I just finished reading You Don’t Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem and I have to say I feel kind of empty now.   It’s set in L.A and is largely a book about the L.A. music scene.  It felt hollow and sad almost, much like the city felt when I visited it a few weeks ago.  To be fair, I was staying in West Hollywood and it wasn’t like I talked to any real humans.  But there was no buzz for me.  No charge from walking down the street (well, NO ONE was walking down the street so it felt kind of lonely anyway).  And I flew to Los Angeles just days after I finished the Lethem book, so that probably coloured the city for me.  Coloured it in beige and off-white walls.  Much like the Philippe Patrick Starck-designed hotel I stayed in.  I felt colour starved in that city.

Funny, as I mostly enjoyed Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn.  A better written novel, with more interesting characters and substance of story.  Much like the city in which it was based.  What is it about books set in particular cities that seem more interesting to me?  Am I that easy to manipulate?

***ummm..anyone from Los Angeles?  Please don’t be offended.  I choose to live in Toronto, for god’s sake, home of the blank stare.

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