What I've been reading

I’ve been reading like a madwoman lately – a frenetic period of literary gorging that I suspect is winding down. (How can I tell? I’m actually reading a book at a leisurely pace for the first time in a month instead of hungrily speeding through each page). It’s been awhile since I’ve posted a reading list, so here is some of mine for the first part of 2008. In order of most recently read:

American Gods: A Novel | Neil Gaiman | 2003
A year ago I read Anansi Boys which was amusing and enjoyable but not anywhere near as gripping as this first book on the theme. The theme of course being that the Gods are as real as you or I, sire children with humans, and have their own struggles to contend with. American Gods turns on the premise that the old country Gods are in a struggle of epic proportions against the new American Gods – television, the internet, money, etc. One man just released from prison is drawn into the battle, a courier for one side, and it’s his story that takes the reader through the warped mirror and onto the “backstage” where the Gods exist in their true form, where his dead wife walks and where his own true nature is revealed. Really, a great plot, a twisted sense of humour and an intelligently written story. Who can resist this?

His Illegal Self | Peter Carey | 2008
You know when you have a favourite author whose turn of phrase and well-crafted characters you admire more than most? And you know how it is when you pick up every new work by that author prepared to be drawn in and charmed by the sheer literary magnitude of their work? If so, then you also know what it’s like to be let down by such a writer you admire so much. And unfortunately this is a book that let me down. While Carey’s writing is strong and use of metaphor as striking as always in this work, his secondary character makes a decision early on that I never understood and this propels the rest of the story. I don’t want to write too much about the plot because I hate spoilers – but suffice to say I will never understand why Anna Xenos runs and effectively kidnaps Che rather than just returning him to the FBI. I realize that people don’t always make the most logical decisions but Carey doesn’t really produce a compelling motivation for Anna’s turn and really that ruined it for me. The character of Che (a 7-year old boy) however is very believable and quite tragic, which was the salvaging characteristic. As I said, the writing is beautiful but the plot was a little thin. I suppose not every book can be a Booker winner though.

The Devil in the White City Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America | Erik Larson | 2003
I picked this up on a whim because I was looking for something a bit different, and I was not disappointed. A non-fiction tale weaving together the lives of the main architect of the 1893 World’s Fair (Daniel Burnham) and a prolific serial killer working the Chicago area (HH Holmes) – Larson managers to paint a vivd picture of the end of the 19th century and the emergence of a new America as foreshadowed by both men’s actions. While normally I wouldn’t pick up a book about a man like Holmes, Larson manages to downplay the more sensationalistic aspects of his crimes while dramatizing the chaos surrounding the creation and opening of the World’s Fair. The writing is concise and the story carried along at a good pace, so much so that it seemed like a surprise when I got to the last chapter about the fair itself. It’s over so quick? Interesting anyhow.

Bodies and Souls The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas | Isabel Vincent | 2007
Now here’s a topic I knew next to nothing about – the trade in white sex trade workers in South America from the 1860s until after World War I. It was during this period that many young girls from the shtetls of Eastern Europe were either tricked into shame marriages or bought from their fathers, and then put onto boats headed for “America” only to end up in the bordellos of Argentina, Brazil and other South American ports. In crafting her story, Vincent chronicles the lives of three Jewish girls in this journalistic look at the trade in women – and while the subject matter is not happy stuff – she is never maudlin in the telling. In particular she chooses to focus on the association of Jewish prostitutes that formed in Rio de Janeiro (likely the only of its kind to ever exist) which existed to provide burial rites and other social services for each other. A story knitted from sad tales, the reader is still left with a positive sense of the resiliency that exists even in the worst situations. It is an unfortunately incomplete history because of the lack of records and living witnesses, but Vincent does an admirable job of telling the story with what she has and bringing it to life with the documents that do exist.

Baudolino | Umberto Eco | 2001
I really struggled with Focault’s Pendulum years ago and as a result had pretty much sworn off Eco. I was willing to wade through his material in the academic context, but when it comes to reading I want a reprieve from aggravation, not more of it. But this one was recommended to me as worth tackling, and I found it cheap secondhand – so against all odds, Baudolino made it into my reading stack. And am I ever glad it did! Part historical fiction, part historical fairy-tale this story traces the exploits of Baudolino, fictional adventurer of the middle ages, and his band of compatriots who serve the Roman Emperor Frederick as they go in search of the legendary Prester John. Compelling accounts of the Emperor’s many wars, the crusades and the sacking of Constantinople are woven together with the tall tales of mythical creatures as Baudolino recounts his life for a listener on the eve of the fourth crusade. What makes his fictions interesting, is that the legends he recounts are those that were very much believed at the time (the existence of Prester John’s kingdom in the far east for example) and the philosophical/religious/political debates of the period are enjoyably-covered in the course of the story. While the writing isn’t particularly lyrical, and I think using the “story-teller” narrative to move things along is cheating a bit, the story is certainly a fantastical one and fun to read.

The Icarus Girl | Helen Oyeyemi | 2007
The Icaraus Girl is a tale of the psychological drama of eight-year-old Jessamy, part-Nigerian and part-British, growing up in modern day London. Always a loner, a girl who hides in linen closets for hours at a time and is prone to screaming fits in class, Jessamy’s life takes a turn when her parents take her to Nigeria for her 8th birthday and she encounters an otherworldly figure (which is perhaps her own split person) -TillyTilly who then follows her back home. While TillyTilly is at first a friendly creature, she quickly becomes a dark force in Jessamy’s life and a number of accidents follow from TillyTilly’s increasing control. Nigerian folklore and family secrets are at the apex of resolving Jessamy’s psychological crisis (or whatever exactly it is that is really going on). I enjoyed this story somewhat, and it *is* impressive that an 18-year old could write such a first novel, but at times I found the pace slow and was disappointed that there were not more clues given as to TillyTilly’s real nature. (You can read TillyTilly either as a supernatural being or as a manifestation of Jessamy’s distress and neither is explored properly which leaves a rich plot motivation completely unmined). An interesting novel but not a first choice for me in the end.

The Chameleon’s Shadow | Minette Walters | 2007
I used to really like Minette Walters mysteries and so my mom gives them to me as gifts every once and awhile even though her last two or three books have left me cold. This one was no exception, the story of a disfigured vet returning from Iraq who seems to be dogged by a serial killer who attacks older gay men. It seems he’s the culprit, whether he remembers the events or not and the reader is left guessing until the end. And the reason you are left guessing is because the ending is so implausible that you would never be able to logic out the motivation or the actions of the killer. I wouldn’t bother with this even though it’s a fast read – the writing is nothing special and the plot is even worse.

Londonstani | Gautam Malkani | 2007
I would have never picked this up on my own, but it came as a gift so I read it. It’s definitely an interesting novel – a tale of a young man’s struggle inside the Desi sub-culture in working class Britain (Jas) – it is thick with the patois of these young gangsters organized into petty circles of thuggery and theft. Religious dynamics, family problems and eventual betrayal all come to play on Jas as he struggles for self and community acceptance – but by the end of the book it seems he has come full circle and is no further ahead in understanding himself or where he belongs in the world (something I was frustrated by). I think if I was a younger male reader I would have really enjoyed this book a lot more, however, as I found it impossible to relate to the characters, particularly their violence which I found disturbing in its pointlessness. I realize that some youth subculture is like that but I don’t much want to read the blow by blow of blood and humiliation. But that’s just me. It’s a well-written book for its genre.

Atonement | Ian McEwan | 2002
I picked this up in LA at the airport because there was not one other thing in the magazine shop I could stand the idea of reading. I’m not going to detail the plot here since it’s just been released as a movie – but I will say I didn’t really enjoy this book. The writing is fine, but mostly I couldn’t identify with any of the characters and found them all insufferable on some level. Which meant that I didn’t want to read about them much. Because I can never put down a book before it’s finished, I raced to the end but really wasn’t sure why I bothered.

Water for Elephants: Sarah Gruen
I loved this book. It’s about the dark underworld of the 1930s circus and love and the redemption of those honest and true. This lives up to all the hype, it’s beautiful and while at times it might get you down the resolution is brimming with hope and light. If you read anything next, this one is a quick and entrancing tale.

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