WHIRL (What Have I Read Lately) Books is a site for readers to find books for themselves and their book clubs. Liz at Literary Masters runs book groups and literary salons where we "dig deep" into literary treasures.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

I'll Read These Books 'Cuz the Movies Were Great!

Okay, I think I'm a tad behind everyone else here, but I recently watched two films that blew me away, and now I want to read the books they were based on. The first film, Touching the Void, was so good, I did something I never do--I watched the special features about how the movie was made. And I loved that part, too!

Quick plot summary: It's 1985 and two climbing partners, both from England, head out to the Peruvian Andes to climb the 20,813 foot Siula Grande. As yet, no one has been able to do this, but that doesn't stop Simon and Joe.

The film alternates between Simon and Joe facing the camera, telling their story, and movie actors reenacting the expedition. It sounds sort of cheesy, but it works--I got so sucked in, even though I knew I was watching actors, my heart was racing as I worried for them!

I'm not giving anything away--you must know that the climb goes wrong, because there wouldn't be a film about it otherwise, right? So, anyway, the two climbers make it to the summit. It's quite dramatic along the way, and we cheer for them at the top. However--did you know that 80% of mountain accidents happen on the descent? I didn't know that, but Simon and Joe do--and they realize that their job is not even close to being over.

So, down they climb.

And things are going quite well. Until Joe breaks his leg--badly. At this point, Simon could ditch Joe, but he doesn't; instead he engineers some sort of knot and pulley system that will allow him to lower the two of them down the mountain. A brief side note here: never, ever underestimate the importance of knowing how to tie knots. I wish I had been a boy scout. Or a sailor. (I was a girl scout for a short while, and I did earn a cooking badge. No jokes, those of you who have experienced my cuisine.)

Back to the story: things are going quite well. Simon lowers Joe down via the rope, waits for his signal--a tug from Joe--and then Simon can rework the pulley system and lower himself. The system is working until, all of a sudden, things go disastrously wrong.

Joe goes flying over a precipice and is literally dangling in mid-air.

Simon, waiting well up the mountain for his signal, has no idea why Joe is not tugging. As he begins to fear the worst, Simon waits and waits. He is seated precariously on a slope, holding onto the rope, and he sees a storm blowing in. Eventually it is clear: either Simon has to cut the rope, sending Joe to a certain death, or he--Simon--will be pulled off his perch and the two of them will die.

Well, what would you do?

Simon cuts the rope, Joe plunges, and then the story really gets good. Because Joe doesn't die. And what he goes through, what he survives, what he does in his situation, is beyond astonishing. From a psychological viewpoint, I found it fascinating to listen to him speak about being so close to death--almost going through it as it were--and then finding life on the other side.

What or who do you turn to when faced with almost certain death? God? Your wits? Fate? And can there ever be something good to come out of such a harrowing experience? These and other questions are answered by Joe, but I wonder, how different would the answers be coming from someone else? How different would my own answers be? I don't want to know!

What Simon goes through is a whole other story. I'm telling you--if the book is even half as good as the film, it would be fantastic for a book group!

Okay, moving on: the next film is Revolutionary Road. First of all, can I ask, is there anything that Kate Winslet cannot do? She is extraordinary! I was reading a lot and not going to the movies the year she was nominated for two Oscars, one for The Reader and one for Revolutionary Road. It took me awhile to rent the dvd's and I must say, I really disliked The Reader.

However, I loved Revolutionary Road. Quick plot summary (really, this time I will be quick): a married couple in the 1950's thinks they are special. They have an idea of an ideal life, one that doesn't contain middle-management jobs, mortgages, and children. In other words, one that isn't exactly like the life they are living.

So they decide to throw it all in and move to Paris. The passion that Kate Winslet's character displays drives them, but will it be able to surmount all the obstacles, both societal and personal, that are thrown in their way?

Again, from a psychological viewpoint, this portrait of a 1950's marriage is riveting, and its insight into human nature and human needs grabs one by the throat with its bold truth.

I loved this movie, and cannot wait to get my hands on the book. What about YOU? Have you read either of these books? Are they as good as the films?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Two Books I Probably Won't Read

I'm suffering from insomnia at the moment, so I just finished reading a couple of good articles online. One is in the NY Times and suggests that the growth in popularity of e-books is going to be for bookstores what the meteorite was for the dinosaurs. It got me thinking...without bookstores, readers won't be able to browse around the store's shelves to find books. They will rely more heavily on the reviews of professional readers, such as...hmm, let me see, oh, hello! Can I be of assistance?

The other article was in the Guardian. It discussed the novel Room by Emma Donoghue, which has been long-listed for the Man Booker prize. Evidently the book is about a five year old boy and his mother who are held captive in a room--for years. There is a man who comes in the dark to bring necessities--and to take his own--but that's the only contact, save for the television, that the mother and son have with the outside world.

I read about this book when the long list was announced, and thought yuck, I don't want to read that. However, this article:


makes it sound very interesting and rather worthwhile. Donoghue certainly is articulate when discussing her novel. She defends herself from the accusation that she is sensationalizing and exploiting the true-life horror story of Franz Fritzl, the Austrian who kept his daughter in a room for decades and fathered seven children by her. You've heard about him, right?

This book may have been "triggered" (Donoghue's word) by that incident, but it is not about that. The author discusses how it is about the parent/ child relationship and the love that can withstand, and transcend, the ordinary--and the strange. She says, "Really, everything in Room is just a defamiliarisation of ordinary parenthood...The idea was to focus on the primal drama of parenthood: the way from moment to moment you swing from comforter to tormentor, just as kids simultaneously light up our lives and drive us nuts. I was trying to capture that strange, bipolar quality of parenthood. For all that being a parent is normal statistically, it's not normal psychologically. It produces some of the most extreme emotions you'll ever have." She goes on to say " I wanted to focus on how a woman could create normal love in a box."

The author of the Guardian article, Sarah Crown, goes on to contrast Room with another novel that won the Orange Prize and that was "sparked" (Crown's word) by another real life tragedy--the Columbine shootings--We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Crown points out that in Shriver's novel "a mother and her son create hell in the heart of a middle-class idyll," while in Room, "Ma and Jack conjure humdrum beauty out of a kind of hell."

Hmm, although I know both these novels have received high praise from critics and the lay reader alike, I just don't think I want to spend my limited time with them. What about you? Have you read these books? Do you want to?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I Love You But I Hate the Book You Recommended

I read a funny article in the Guardian book blog today:


The author contemplates the existential questions that arise when someone you love recommends a book that you don't. He asks: "Does this mean, when a fellow book lover gives you a book you hate, the person didn't really know you, or had an erroneous idea of you in their mind? Does it mean you don't really know yourself? Does it mean the self is fundamentally unknowable, at least through the contents of a bookshelf?"

This cracked me up.

He uses as an example The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, a book given to him by a quasi-romantic interest, and one which he has tried numerous times to read but has never finished because...he doesn't like it.

I can relate to this because my brother, you know, the one noted in earlier posts who won't read used books and never goes to the library, gave me that book as a gift. Now I'm not sure he had read it, so technically it wasn't a recommendation--and I imagine gifted books raise different existential questions than recommended books. Anyway, I absolutely could not get through it. And I really, really persevered, and was terribly disappointed that I had done so because I ended up finally just closing it with a thump! that's it!--I cannot read another word of this unintelligible rot.

Here's a confession, though--I feel like this is a book I should read, and I do feel that I will pick it up again one day and get through it. And maybe even understand it.

But what about when I am recommending an entire year's worth of books for my book group members to read? That's a lot of pressure! What if they don't like what I've chosen? Yikes!

Well, we all know that you can't please all the people all the time, and over the years some members have, believe it or not, disliked some of my choices. I know, I know, hard to believe but there you are. Anyway, I take the advice that I would give to anyone else. I use criteria by which to judge a book--for instance this year we are reading contemporary prize winners--and if I've stuck to that criteria and if I find the book is literary and worth reading--and worth discussing--then I really don't worry about whether someone likes it or not.

You see, I don't think reading a book should necessarily be easy, and I don't think books worth reading should necessarily be likable. I think books should makes us think, make us feel, make us wonder, make us question, make us...change.

Yes, I will definitely pick up The Unbearable Lightness of Being again--and I will finish it!

What do you think? Is it important for you to like what you're reading?

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

The Slap won the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal. Really?

The Slap was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and the Colin Roderick Award. Really??

The Slap
is currently on the long list for the Man Booker Prize. Really???

I'm sorry, but I just don't get it. I found myself speed-reading this book to get it over with, and I cannot recommend it at all. Not at all.

Quick plot summary: Somewhere in the suburbs of Australia, a little boy is slapped at a BBQ by a man who is not his father. This event is used by the author as a device to delve into the lives of the novel's characters, eight of whom become the individual, central focus of a chapter of the book. The slap itself becomes a sort of signifier as each character places his or her meaning upon it and simultaneously takes from it what he or she wants.

Forget the seediness of the characters. Forget the ubiquitous and uninteresting sex scenes. Forget all the drug use. Forget the self-destruction running rampant through the novel. I wouldn't have a problem with any of this--not if the book were well written. But it's not. At times I thought Tsiolkas was trying to write a short story in each chapter, threading the slap through them all--to bind them together. But the chapters weren't interesting enough on their own to survive such a structure.

Instead of using the entire novel to build and develop the life of an individual character, he tried to cram it all into the one chapter devoted to that character's point of view. The result was tedious and boring. I didn't care about the characters, and consequently, I didn't care about the novel.

And I couldn't help thinking, even as I read the female voices of the novel, that this book just screams out that it was written by a man. When I'm hearing the author's voice overriding the narrators' voices, that's a problem, isn't it?

Perhaps this novel is meant to be some sort of mosaic or kaleidoscopic look at modern Australian society. Maybe. Again, I find I really don't care.

This was my "beach read" this summer. Hmm...I need another vacation. How about you? What was your "beach read"?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

I had come across this title a few times while perusing the long and short lists for award-winning fiction. However, the description--something about Ireland, a priest, a move to New York--put me off reading it. It was while reviewing the Guardian's article on authors recommending just two reads for the summer that it caught my eye again. I believe Tom Stoppard called this novel "flawless."

Far be it from me to argue with Tom Stoppard, so I won't delve into whether I think it's flawless or not, but I will say it is a touching, thought-provoking, wonderful book. It evoked A Tree Grows in Brooklyn more than once for me, with its descriptions of New York, seen through the eyes of innocence. The atmosphere of the book absolutely captivated me.

Quick plot review: It's the fifties in Ireland. Eilis' family decides it's time for her to make her way in the world, and what better place to do it than in Brooklyn, USA, the land of promise--and where the local Irish priest has many contacts who can help Eilis get settled.

Before she knows it, Eilis finds herself sick as a dog on a ship crossing the ocean.

Toibin is able to render Eilis' experience so that the reader feels she is going through it herself. But what is so nice, so refreshing, is that after a while I realized that nothing shocking or violent or predictable was going to happen. Eilis was quite successfully making her way in the world, the New World at that.

She does well at work, she has a nice place to live, and she meets and falls for Tony, a sweet Italian boy.

Then an event calls her back to Ireland. I'm not giving anything away--the book jacket tells you this much. What it doesn't tell you is now the book gets really, really good. No more black and white--grey enters the scene big-time.

One of my favorite books is Old School by Tobias Wolff. The main character does something that made me, as the reader, want to jump into the book and shout "stop!--don't you see what you're doing?" I had that same feeling while I was reading Brooklyn; I literally felt afraid for Eilis. I can't say more without giving some of it away, so I'll stop here.

Suffice to say, I heartily recommend this book. And with both Tom Stoppard and I recommending it, you're going to read it, right?