Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Mostly mystery, but also part love story, book lovers everywhere should read The Shadow of the Wind. Our hero is a young man named Daniel who grows up working in his father's bookstore and who finds himself driven to discover all that he can about an enigmatic author whose book he adopts from the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Along the way he encounters people almost as strange and mysterious as the author whose story he's trying to track down--he makes decisions which have strange outcomes and accidentally falls in love on the journey.

Though die-hard mystery fans might find this plot too predictable, the rest of us should enjoy the bookish premise, the setting and characters, and take on the adventure without really trying to guess the end.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark

Though the characters tend to be inconsistent, especially at the end, and not particularly likable, the plot is interesting because it's clearly so well researched. Men (one in particular) interested in medicine and general scholarly endeavors, heedless of the grief and havoc their actions bring about, use household maids to experiment with what causes birth defects in children. Mr. Black, the apothecary, is determined (through his opiated haze) to prove that the highly sensitive nature of women can cause their fears to imprint on the form of their unborn by experimenting on his maids Mary and Eliza, the narrator.

Long story short: This is a book for people who love the history behind historical novels.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Perfect Man by Naeem Murr

The Perfect Man is a novel of character complexity; were the characters not so well done, it wouldn’t have been worth reading. Strong Annie, disturbed Lew, puerile Alvin, sophisticated Nora. And then there is our main character Raj, the Indian-English boy who is foisted upon his uncles by his father and then a woman who has no blood relation to him and no reason to allow him to stay except compassion (though she says she said yes just to take away any reason for his uncle to stay).

Raj is interesting because though the book’s stories twist around his life, he isn’t really much of a character throughout. He’s more of a catalyst for other characters, despite many events in the story taking place before Raj ever appeared on the scene (1950s’ small town, Missouri). Raj never completely develops as his own character, despite efforts to clean up in the end. In fact, the end felt a little rushed, a little last minute, a little too much like an expected but untidy red bow. Still, I liked Raj, ever a joker, usually unpredictable.

But I was amazed at how many of the characters I didn’t like. This town was full of humanity at its worst—or at least, the worst was highlighted. The plot itself is fairly simple (a boy without identity trying to find it among strangers), told staggeringly, jumping years ahead and then back. Subplots involve cruelty, alcoholism, murder, adultery, love, and the opposite of love. It’s not a particularly uplifting book. Many times, it’s absolutely disgusting. Alvin is inclined to find dead or almost-dead things and show his friends, and the group of middle-aged men in the book are manipulative and vicious and you wonder how they get away with it. And the women are sad, trapped, wanting what they can’t have and don’t know that they ever had, even for a minute. Ruth, the woman who takes in Raj, is the only independent woman in the book—she resists needing anyone or anything. Annie, Raj’s first friend in his new town, aspires to be like Ruth but it’s not in her nature to be free of needing to be loved.

I recommend this book to people who enjoy getting lost in characters more than plot, to people who have ever felt scornful of the place where they live and the people who live around them, and to people who enjoy writers who play with language—whether they play successfully or not.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

I've read quite a few books about writing, and I can't say that I like this particular book. However, I can't say that I don't recommend it; it had its moments of brilliance (usually involving quoting someone else), and some of what I didn't like about it probably needs to be attributed to the writing styles of the era (first published in 1938).

Just to get it over with, what I didn't like was how the book felt condescending, mostly based on the number of I-want-to-tell-you's and the I-am-trying-to-get-you-to's. In one chapter, she uses another writer's article and parenthetically inserts her comments; I would have preferred to make my own opinions before reading hers. And she refers to what she calls "Truthfulness"--Truth with a capital T scares me because it implies a singular truth, which is not something that we humans are privy to (much as some of us would like tho think otherwise). Attributing this capitalization feature to the era of the writing though, she could have had a very interesting conversation with Tim O'Brien about capturing truth through writing.

Also, Ueland seems to subscribe to the belief that anyone can be a writer--she would have made a fantastic middle school English teacher, I imagine--and though I don't agree (there are plenty of books published that should have ended up in the editors' pitch piles), I think it is important to encourage students who might otherwise never even try (really try) to write a good story and so I would recommend this book to any keepers of libraries and middle/high school English teachers.

All in all, I don't think that there's much she advises that books about writing haven't been advising ever since. Keep it simple, don't try to force your voice, etc. Ueland's gems, I think, lie in quoting Van Gogh (on page 20) regarding the capturing of moments and Chekhov (on page 126) regarding characterization through dialogue and the personality and voice of the writer. Also, there is a paragraph (on page 86) in which she describes beautiful writing: "It is impossible to cut it. I try to take out a sentence here or there, but cannot bring myself to do it. They are all too good and necessary and contribute too much."

Friday, October 05, 2007

Looking for Alaska by John Green

You know, I was hopeful that Looking For Alaska would be an enjoyable read--I liked the cover and the ambiguous jacket blurb. And it was very much what I had hoped. I'm not so sure that I would have enjoyed it as a high school underclassman, but as an upperclassman I think I would have found it very educational.

I very much enjoyed the main character Miles/Pudge, a young man who at the beginning of the book is just starting his first year at boarding school. The nickname is ironic, assigned to him by his new roommate Chip/The Colonel. The Corporal is who introduces Pudge to Alaska, who he immediately becomes infatuated with.

I found Pudge's voice to make for some intense reading. His "thing" is to learn people's last words, so throughout the book, you learn what a number of famous people's last words supposedly were (there are some comments from the author after the books is over regarding the accuracy of these last words). And he and his new set of friends are far less shy about talking about anything than I was at 16.

And the chapters are a countdown (158 days before, forty-eight days before, three days after). I don't know how long it took me to notice that--I was a few chapters in--and then you start to wonder what the countdown is leading you to. (I'm not telling you what--read it yourself.) The only major flaw I found with the book is that there seemed to be a major overlap of time just before the "before" countdown ended; I just couldn't get the timeline to match up with how events "after" were described. It's entirely possible that I missed a key sentence that would eliminate this confusion, but I reread the parts in question several times and can't reconcile them. But even with that said, the timeline is less important than the events of the story, however they happened.

Since this is the end of Banned Books Week, I think it should be noted that this book has been challenged, and not surprisingly so. There are frank sexual situations, drinking, smoking, tons of swearing, flagrant disregard for authority--all the usual stuff that causes parents to get their feathers ruffled.