Sunday, October 30, 2011

Nerd fun: mo' books.

Here's the latest installment of book reviews... I'm letting my Nerd Flag fly today.  Yay books.

Even though I'm a little bit behind on my reading from my trip, I spent today doing major catch up and finished another book.  As it seems to have been the case lately, my most recent batch is rather eclectic.  I know.  Again.  Weird.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

I was supposed to read The Awakening in college. I owned a copy.  I skimmed it.  But I didn't really sit with it and try to absorb the story.  Consequently I didn't get much out of it.  So when I was making my reading list for my fiction class and my student teacher suggested it, I figured I would go back to it and learn more about it than what I knew: A) Edna doesn't like being a mom and B) Edna does that whole "into the sea" thing at the end.

Edna is a wife trapped by her decisions.  She marries a man who is good enough; she has children because it's what she is supposed to do, not really because she is enthralled with the idea of motherhood or children.  She falls in love with another man.  She meets and interacts with a single woman who doesn't really make excuses for being single.  She questions her decisions.  She questions her existence.

Knowing more about the historical context of the novel helped, too.  It was published in 1899.  It's one of the first examples of a woman who isn't happy with traditional roles of wife and mother, and it's narrated without judgement.  It raises some interesting questions about the expectations of women around that time, but honestly it struck me how modern and relevant the themes still are.

My recommendation: A good, (and short!) read.  Stylistically it's a little dense and wordy, but I was happy I gave it another look.  It's one of those books on my I-feel-smarter-because-I-know-what-people-are-talking-about-when-they-reference-it list.  I recommend it if you think you can hang with the 1900's vocab.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

I think I said this before I started reading it, but I'm almost embarrassed by how little Didion I've read.  I'm a traitor to Sacramento.  But I'm trying to make up for it (and for my general unfamiliarity with nonfiction writers).  My first exposure to Didion was to a passage from Slouching Toward Bethlehem (her famous short nonfiction pieces--it's also on my to-read list) at a teachers' workshop.  Her writing is full of ease and beauty.

The Year of Magical Thinking is nonfiction; Didion describes a horrific period of her life when she lost her husband suddenly while her daughter was in a coma in the hospital.  Heavy stuff.  She went through experiences that are unthinkable, and as a result she began to think in a warped--she calls it "magical"--other-logic in order to deal with her grief.  Parts of this book were really hard to read, and I think I read it with a kind of distance just to get through it.  I think it helped me to read it with an eye to technique rather than the emotional experience.  I know this is the kind of stuff that affects me on a really deep level, but since I was looking to it to see how it was written for my nonfiction class, it wasn't as hard to deal with.

It's interesting that I also recently read another memoir on grief, Light Years.  This is so different.  While that one was about moving into nature in order to deal with the narrator's grief, this one was about living in it and trying to function, still.  Interesting.  Heart-breaking.  Tragic.  And, also, beautiful.  Didion has a way of repeating benign-sounding phrases to bring the reader back to the same idea over again.  It's almost musical.

My recommendation: I'm not sure this one is for everybody.  I'm sure it would help someone who was grieving to read Didion's thought process.  The writing is spectacular.  It's very good, but just make sure you know what you're getting.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Man.  I wanted to like this book.  I wanted it so bad.  But I just didn't really like it.  It's unfortunate, because I was shouting the praises of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close from the rooftops.  I had high hopes for this one to be equally good and equally touching.  Something about it just didn't resonate with me, though.  I tried to start it about five times and I just couldn't get hooked; I finally decided today to just sit down and get through it.  It was okay.

This is from Amazon:
The simplest thing would be to describe Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer's accomplished debut, as a novel about the Holocaust. It is, but that really fails to do justice to the sheer ambition of this book. The main story is a grimly familiar one. A young Jewish American--who just happens to be called Jonathan Safran Foer--travels to the Ukraine in the hope of finding the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He is aided in his search by Alex Perchov, a naïve Ukrainian translator, Alex's grandfather (also called Alex), and a flatulent mongrel dog named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. On their journey through Eastern Europe's obliterated landscape they unearth facts about the Nazi atrocities and the extent of Ukrainian complicity that have implications for Perchov as well as Safran Foer. This narrative is not, however, recounted from (the character) Jonathan Safran Foer's perspective. It is relayed through a series of letters that Alex sends to Foer. These are written in the kind of broken Russo-English normally reserved for Bond villains or Latka from Taxi. Interspersed between these letters are fragments of a novel by Safran Foer--a wonderfully imagined, almost magical realist, account of life in the shtetl before the Nazis destroyed it. These are in turn commented on by Alex, creating an additional metafictional angle to the tale.

See, my problem isn't with the whole metafiction thing.  Sometimes that's fine.  And it wouldn't have been with the very clear voice of the guide, Alex, except that it just got to be too distracting and it wasn't funny.  It seemed cruel and derivative.  I guess I couldn't figure out what Foer wanted to accomplish with all the mistranslations and malapropisms.  I guess on another level it just wasn't my cup of tea.

As a Holocaust narrative and a quest story, it had an interesting story to tell, but I felt like it would have been so much more powerful if it was just told in a straightforward way without the gimmicks.  At times it was emotional and moving, but much of the time it just seemed like it wasn't about anything.  That's not really my favorite.  It feels like this might be the kind of book I'd like more if I had someone to talk to about it, but as it was--just me alone on the couch in my sweats all day--I can't say it was my favorite read.  Maybe I just didn't get it.  There wasn't the same sweetness here that Foer had in Extremely Loud.

My recommendation: Skip it.

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