Saturday, March 31, 2012

Travels in a Thin Country by Sara Wheeler

Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile (Modern Library)Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile by Sara Wheeler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Around the World: 11 of 52 (still need to post review for #10)

The author combines history, political intrigue, stories of people she travels with or meets along the way, verbal snapshots of unbelievable landscape, and box after box of wine (mixed with Coke) into a travel book that has made Chile even more of a mystery to me NOW than when I started reading it.

The country stretches along South America and includes icebergs, rainforests, desert, mountains, island regions, wine country, with a diversity of old European colonials and (mostly extinct) native people groups. She never travels to Easter Island, but it seems like it is more Polynesian than anything else (and I still have a book to read for it by itself). I learned about quite a few more cold weather islands that I didn't know about (hooray) but if traveling there is anything like she describes in 1992, I'm not sure I could do it (boo).  I'm going to dream about them over on my Pinterest wanderlust board, if you want to see what I find. 

Quotation tidbits I liked:
"'The problem is,' he went on, 'that you don't stop being an exile when you get home. It becomes a state of mind. You can be an exile inside your head. Perpetual travellers are often like that... Mind you, you don't necessarily have to go anywhere to feel that kind of permanent alienation. Perhaps the worst kind of exile is mental.'"

"It was unutterably peaceful. At that moment the past held no regrets and the future no fears; I could have given up everything worldly to live the rest of my life on that island."

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist 2012

The 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist was announced earlier this week.  There is some definite overlap with the Philip K. Dick Award sharing the Magary (under the American title of The Postmortal), and with the Nebula nominees which also includes Embassytown.  I've read half of these already, and need to get going on the rest, as the winner will be announced on May 2nd.
Clearly I didn't rate any of those I've read so far as higher than 3 stars.  You can link to my reviews to find out why.  Three stars can be for so many different reasons!  I think The Waters Rising and The Testament of Jesse Lamb were rated that way because of inherent flaws, while I actually liked The End Specialist/ The Postmortal quite a bit more.  I'll read the rest and get back to you!

It isn't bad to have high standards.  Some of my favorite science fiction books have won this award - The Handmaid's Tale in 1987, The Sparrow in 1988, and Zoo City was a surprise win last year.  (Interesting, all my favorites are female authors!) 

Books mentioned in this post - shortlist:

Books mentioned in this post - past winners:

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Open City by Teju Cole

Open CityOpen City by Teju Cole
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I have never been to New York, but feel as if I've seen a version of it through the eyes of Julius as he walks, reflects, and wonders. He isn't just a flâneur; his upbringing in Nigeria and navigating multiple languages and countries of origin, as well as his love of music and reading, along with his work as a psychiatrist give him plenty to think about.

Frankly, I'm not surprised at all that it was in the top ten books of 2011.

"No sooner do I buy a new book than it reproaches me for leaving it unread."

"All lovers live on partial knowledge."

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson is one of my favorite authors, possibly my favorite, depending on what day it is. When I heard she was publishing a memoir, I knew I'd want to read it. It focuses on her relationship with her adoptive mother, known as "Mrs. Winterson" throughout the book. It tells the story of growing up in a Pentecostal household, and how this upbringing impacted her life as an adult. If that sounds familiar, she drew greatly from her life to write Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, but her reality was harsher with no mediator.

The memoir has some of what I expect from Winterson - some beautifully expressed thoughts, and even an explanation of why she writes in fragments and poetry (it is actually an amazing explanation, but I'll save it for the reader). There is also a lot of sadness and imperfection here. Her journey to learn about what love actually is hasn't been easy, and she might not be there yet. I think it is rare to have someone tell their actual story so openly, including the parts that don't necessarily put them in a good light. Winterson, like always, is not afraid. I think the impression that I'm left with is this incredibly isolated, lonely, angry woman; who somehow fueled all of that into beautiful and universal writing.

Some favorite bits:
"Why should a woman not be ambitious for literature? Ambitious for herself?"

"When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken."

"I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven."

"I was a miracle in that I could have taken her out of her life and into a life she would have liked a lot. It never happened, but that doesn't mean it wasn't there to happen."

"Books...are a home... you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space."

"Doing the sensible thing is only a good idea when the decision is quite small. For the life-changing things, you must risk it."

"Love is vivid. I never wanted the pale version. Love is full strength. I never wanted the diluted version. I never shied away from love's hugeness but I had no idea that love could be as reliable as the sun. The daily rising of love."

"The more I read, the more I felt connected across time to other lives and deeper sympathies. I felt less isolated."

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Reading Envy's Pick for the PEN/Faulkner Award

I finished the last book on nominee list for the The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction tonight, just in time for the award to be announced March 26!

The description again from their website:
Founded by writers in 1980, the PEN/Faulkner Foundation brings together American writers and readers in a wide variety of programs to promote a love of literature.  The foundation is named for William Faulkner, who used his Nobel Prize funds to create an award for young writers, and PEN, the international writers’ organization.

If I had to bet, I'd say that this year's award will go to a volume of short stories. I think I'd give a slight edge to the Millhauser over the DeLillo, but they are such different volumes it is hard to say.   DeLillo reads as a capture of a certain time, and is a short set of more recent stories.  The Millhauser is really a compilation of thirty years of stories, with only the first handful being brand new (they were my favorites in the volume too). 

Millhauser was a pleasant surprise. He writes with an imagined nostalgia, for things that never really existed, like magic carpets and intricately carved snow people. Some of the stories are more about the magic found in the mundane, like the time between when you get to the ocean and you first stick a toe in, and these were my favorite. The least interesting (to me) were those about people who DO magic, like magicians and wizards, and I ended up skimming those.

One of my favorite Millhauser stories was "We Others," told from the perspective of a ghost (oh, it took me two reviews of this book to realize that is also the title the author chose for it.  Well he should!). It starts like this:
"We others are not like you. We are more prickly, more jittery, more restless, more reckless, more secretive, more desperate, more cowardly, more bold. We live at the edges of ourselves, not in the middle places. We leave that to you. Did I say: more watchful? That above all. We watch you, we follow you, we spy on you, we obsess over you. We crave your attention. We hunger for a sign...."
If I were awarding the PEN/Faulkner, this is how it would go:
  1. Steven Millhauser for We Others: New and Selected Stories (my review)
  2. Don DeLillo for The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories (my review)
  3. Russell Banks for Lost Memory of Skin (my review)
  4. Anita Desai for The Artist of Disappearance (my review)
  5. Julie Otsuka for The Buddha in the Attic (my review)
I know the Otsuka is listed on a bunch of award nominations this year.  I feel like I have very good reasons for having less of an opinion about it, and I encourage you to read my review.  I always feel a little strange when I disagree with the majority, but I have my own mind, thank you very much.  

Have you read any of these?  Do you have any thoughts to share before the 26th?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

The AskThe Ask by Sam Lipsyte
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Usually after I check out a pile of books from the library, I read the first chapter of each one to try to figure out where to start. After I read the first chapter of The Ask, I was hooked and didn't want to put it down! There were several moments in the beginning where I laughed like an idiot.

Here are a few:

"I'd ask for American flags, stick them on upside down in protest against our nation's foreign and domestic policies."
This is probably only funny because I do the exact same thing, and had no idea anyone else thought this way. Passive protest!

Sometimes it is just the word choice:
"Cooley rose [and] petted his mustache with a kind of cunnidigital ardor."
Yeah, pretty sure I've never seen cunnidigital in print before.

The book starts out funny. And then it gets painfully funny. Milo, the protagonist of sorts, is kind of a loser. At first it is funny and entertaining, but then it turns darker and gets harder to laugh about. I think in the end the humor balances back out again, but you have to be willing to really wade through it with him.

"It's when they stop trying to destroy you, my mother once said, that you should really start to worry."

And the best moment:
"We are going to eat ice cream and we are going to eat shit. The trick is to use different spoons."

I will definitely be reading other books by Sam Lipsyte.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

New Reading Lists to Envy

It has been a while since I've posted about books I'm envying!

There are so many award lists out there right now - finalists, long lists, nominees - I haven't caught up.  I may never catch up.  But I can try!

I currently have my eye on:

The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction - awarded March 26, 2012
Founded by writers in 1980, the PEN/Faulkner Foundation brings together American writers and readers in a wide variety of programs to promote a love of literature.  The foundation is named for William Faulkner, who used his Nobel Prize funds to create an award for young writers, and PEN, the international writers’ organization.

2012 Nominees, which I'm almost done with:
  • Russell Banks for Lost Memory of Skin (my review here)
  • Don DeLillo for The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories (my review in GoodReads)
  • Anita Desai for The Artist of Disappearance (currently reading)
  • Steven Millhauser for We Others: New and Selected Stories (on its way to me)
  • Julie Otsuka for The Buddha in the Attic (my review here)

I've enjoyed the nominees for PEN/Faulkner, although I didn't re-read the Otsuka, which was also on the National Book Award list earlier this year.  Once I finish the last two, I'll write a post about all five.

Nebula Awards - awarded May 20, 2012 Science fiction and fantasy awards in a wide number of categories.

  • Among Others by Jo Walton
  • Embassytown by China Miéville
  • Firebird by Jack McDevitt
  • God’s War by Kameron Hurley
  • Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine
  • The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin (read my review in GoodReads)
I always try to read all the nominees in short story, novelette, novella, and novel for the Nebula Awards.  This year I'll be listening to the short stories in audio, with the hopes of doing a podcast devoted to them on SFF Audio.

Check out the listing of links to free MP3s of all the short stories that my friend Tamahome put together!

Orange Prize Long List - shortlist April 17, awarded May 30
Officially this isn't announced until tomorrow, but it is already tomorrow in the UK, and since I was involved with the Orange Prize Project in January, I've kept my finger more on the pulse of this award.  Despite the controversy surrounding the award (is it disparaging to have an award just for women? etc.), I usually find the nominees are very good, unlike some of the other categories where I have a few I just can't understand.  Of course, this long list includes Lord of Misrule, which I really disliked when it was the winner of the National Book Award in 2010.  The award seems to go back rather far in time, if it is including books from 2010, but I might not understand the parameters.

I'm not sure if I'll read all of the long list, at least not in time for the shortlist announcement (a little over a month from now, and I'm sure some titles aren't available in the states).  But I've read a few already!

Let's take a look:
  • Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg
  • On the Floor by Aifric Campbell 
  • The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen 
  • The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue 
  • Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (hmm, this is at least its third nomination, guess I can finally read it)
  • The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright 
  • The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki 
  • Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon (my crotchety review here)
  • Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding
  • Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
  • The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay
  • The Blue Book by A.L. Kenned
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (my review on SFF Audio)
  • The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller 
  • Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick
  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
  • There but for the by Ali Smith (my review)
  • The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard
  • Tides of War by Stella Tillyard
  • The Submission by Amy Waldman (not read yet, but definitely in the top 10 of 2011 according to my list crunching)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

Lost Memory of SkinLost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the first book I've read by Banks, although I've heard some of his others are better. I decided to go ahead and read this first since it was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2012.

This is the story of "Kid," who is a 21 year old military reject, virgin, and convicted sex offender who ends up living in a community of sex offenders under a causeway in southern Florida because of all the restrictions of where convicted sex offenders can live. He is befriended by a sociology professor who studies the homeless.

Kid has issues because of his upbringing, including a severe porn addiction, and seems to only deal well with animals (he has a huge iguana named Izzy at the beginning). The professor's story is revealed throughout the novel.

There isn't anything in here that I can pinpoint as being great, although I was engaged in the story the whole time. Karen Russell definitely writes this landscape better than Banks (although to be fair, his focus was on the characters), and the twists at the end seemed too little too late to really be fleshed out. I ended up wanting more of the Professor, although I don't think I could stand any more discussions on his eating habits.

The Deleted World by Tomas Tranströmer

The Deleted World: PoemsThe Deleted World: Poems by Tomas Tranströmer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm never sure about reading poetry that has been translated, but these are deliberately called "versions," and the translator gives some examples where the English words can't come close to what the Swedish equivalents would have sounded like.  He also gives descriptions of the other English-translated volumes of the poet's works, and what the reader can expect from each.  I'll probably try to pick up a few more, because this particular volume is pretty brief.

Tranströmer's poems are very tied to nature, and there isn't a single poem in this volume that does not have nature as a central theme, either representing itself or tying to topics like death, life, and connectivity. They are brief, but seem to leave room for the silence that the landscape he writes about demands. A few are specifically about some of the islands off the Swedish coast.

My favorite is probably Black Postcards, with the imagery of death coming to measure us for our measurements, sewing our suit on the sly while we go through our lives.

"We are afraid the storm will blow us empty."

Thursday, March 1, 2012

There But For The by Ali Smith

There but for theThere but for the by Ali Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"'There but for the' is ultimately a book about loss and retention: about what we forget and what we remember, about the people who pass through our lives and what bits of them cling to our consciousness." - Charles McGrath, NY Times book review, 10/18/11

Honestly, I couldn't say it better. While the central story in this novel is about a man who goes upstairs and locks himself in a room between dinner and dessert and refuses to leave, most of the book isn't about him at all. It focuses instead on the stories of four people who have minor connections to him.

Between each of the four sections is some kind of writing that one of the characters had done for the other, that isn't explained right away but somehow serves as a tie to Miles, who is still barricaded in the room.

I enjoyed this more than I expected. It has been on my radar for a while, first appearing in several reviews and then on a list of books that could have been nominated for the Booker but weren't. Some of the stories get a bit tedious, particularly the 9 year old, but for the most part I really enjoyed them. It made me think of all the little memories I have from people I may have only met one summer, or 20 years ago. Perhaps they will come to MY rescue one day....