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.

Friday, April 29, 2011

WHIRLing Again!

You all know by now:  WHIRL stands for What Have I Read Lately.  There are some books I've read in the past year that I can highly recommend, but just haven't had the time to blog at length about them.  Being realistic, I probably won't get around to reviewing them, but I don't want you to miss out.

The Lovers by Vendela Vida.  This is a book that I enjoyed so much; I highly recommend it.  I hope this doesn't sound too pretentious on my part, but I feel like Vida's writing can only get better, and she is definitely one to watch.  This novel takes place in Turkey when the protagonist goes there on a trip after her husband dies.  Suddenly alone and forced to do things for herself, she flounders a bit, both physically and emotionally.  As we watch her make some surprising, if not poor decisions, we slowly get to know this woman and wonder if she's ever known herself.

This is one of the best books I've read recently for putting me in a place.  Vida evoked Turkey for me and made me want to be there.  This novel is a winner.

Ethan Frome by Edith Warton.  I practically read this classic in one sitting--I was riveted.
It's short, a novella really, and it's so compelling; I only put it down because I knew I had to get up early the next morning. Which I did, only to immediately pick up the book and finish it! This was, I am sorry to admit, my first experience with Edith Wharton. Shocking, but true.I suppose what hooked me at first was the mystery. The narrator is wondering, and makes the reader wonder along with him, what has made Ethan Frome the bent and broken man he seems to be. The narrator is obsessed with Ethan and so perhaps this is why he can articulate Ethan's story so well. For Ethan, in turn, is obsessed with a lady, a lady who is not his wife.

Who knew I'd be swept along in a romantic triangle in a time of restraint and austerity.  And the landscape, a huge character in the story, is a perfect metaphor for the restrained passions of Ethan and his object of affection.  I would be surprised to find anyone who doesn't like this book.  Almost as surprised as I was at the ending of it!

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman.  I picked up this book because I read an article in The Guardian that compared it to Franzen's Freedom, stating that Goodman's book was just as good, if not better than Franzen's, but Freedom gets all the attention because the novel, like the author of it, are loud and in-your-face whereas Goodman and her novel are more nuanced and subtle.

Well, I'm not sure I agree with any of that, but I did enjoy The Cookbook Collector.  It takes place in the Bay Area, and follows various people's lives, one of whom collects, you guessed it--rare cookbooks.  To attempt a cooking metaphor here: at times I thought the author, as cook, threw a few too many ingredients in the pot and the flavors became too muddied; I would have preferred fewer and more distinct characters and subplots.  Having said that, this is a very readable book, and one that I think book clubs would enjoy discussing.

What about you?  What have you read lately?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Should Your Book Club Read The Calligrapher by Edward Docx?

This book was recommended to me by one of my favorite bloggers to use for my Literary Masters book groups.  Although I don't think I'll be putting it on my list for next season, I can highly recommend the book for your individual reading pleasure, and you may even enjoy a rousing discussion about it with your personal book club.

Quick plot overview:
The narrator, Jasper Jackson, is a calligrapher by profession.  Living in north London, Jasper has been commissioned by a wealthy American media tycoon to transcribe thirty poems from John Donne's Songs and Sonnets.  Now if you know little to nothing about calligraphy and the same amount about Donne and his poetry, you are in for a treat.  More about that later, however.

Jasper Jackson is a bit of a womanizer as it turns out, and he doesn't restrict himself to one amour at a time.  Constancy seems to be a bit of a problem for Jasper.  But then again, Jasper hasn't really found his true love yet.  Until one day, when he is gazing out his window onto the garden below, where he spies a woman so outrageously beautiful, he compares her to Helen of Troy.  He also calls her, for lack of the words to do her true justice, a "real hottie."  Immediately he is smitten, no make that obsessed, and it becomes his sole ambition to meet her--and more.

Now, at the start of every chapter, there's a poem by John Donne, and even if you've never read his poetry, you can figure out the gist of what it means and then, and this is the clever part, you will know what's going to happen in that chapter.  If the way I've just described it makes it sound corny or cheesy, that's my fault because it's really done well.  Occasionally within a chapter Jasper discusses Donne's poetry and what it means, or how difficult it is to definitively pin down, but this never comes across as heavy-handed.  Instead, I found myself enjoying learning a bit about this 17th century poet and his work.

This novel is quite funny at times, although at first I felt like I was reading a guy's novel (I couldn't get too excited about Jasper's musings about woman and his wooing of them) and wondered if I would stick with it.  I'm glad I did, not only because it rapidly improved and then easily hooked me, but also because there's a couple of unexpected twists in the story that lend it depth.  And when considered in the broader context that encompasses Donne's poetry, one can see how these twists make a lot of sense.  It makes for a very clever, or as the Brits say, a brilliant package.

I highly recommend this book for a fun literary read, and I think most book clubs will find enough in it to carry an evening's conversation.  I will be keeping my eyes open for more Edward Docx for sure.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel

I chanced upon this book when I was reading about past winners of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  Brodeck's Report (Brodeck, A Novel in the US) won this award in 2010, but for some reason, it had never crossed my radar.  When I saw that the author also wrote the film I've Loved You So Long, I put down all my other reading to pick up this novel.  If you haven't seen I've Loved You So Long, you are really missing out.  And if you have seen it, you know exactly what I mean.

Brodeck's Report did not disappoint me.  Yet, I hesitate to recommend it to all.  (I think I'm suffering from being accused of reading only heavy or depressing books, an accusation that is not true.  Well, not 100% true, anyway.)  How do I even describe this book?

Reading it was like being in a dream.  I wasn't exactly sure where the setting was.  A tiny isolated village somewhere in the fluid-boundary zone of Europe, around the Germany/France border or the Austria/Hungary border.  The time is post WWII, although this, too, is fluid as we follow the meanderings of the narrator's memory as he tells us his story.  The characters are sometimes real, but hard to pin down.  They felt sort of ephemeral to me.  And at times I felt I was reading a fable or allegory.

But at the same time, I couldn't put this book down, and the messages it carried were very real and clear.

Quick plot summary: Brodeck has been charged with writing a report about the events surrounding the death of a nameless character he refers to as "the other."  The people who have ordered him to write the report have actually murdered "the other," and they intimidate Brodeck into cooperating.  However, as a means of resistance, Brodeck writes two reports, and the book we are reading is the "true" one.  Or so one would think.  Make of that what you will; at any rate, Brodeck starts his narrative with this disclaimer:

"I'm Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it.  I insist on that.  I want everyone to know.  I had no part in it, and once I learned what had happened I would have preferred never to mention it again, I would have liked to bind my memory fast and keep it that way, as subdued and still as a weasel in an iron trap."

Ah yes, but it is terribly difficult to "bind memory," and in the midst of writing his report, Brodeck reminisces about his time in a concentration camp, from which he has recently returned.  Resisting his captors was not an option for Brodeck at the camp.  Instead, he performed the role that the sadistic guards demanded of him: he acted, quite literally, like a dog.  This he did in order to survive and return home to his beloved Amelia and Fedorine.

As it turns out, Amelie has not been left unscathed in the village as she awaited Brodeck's return.  And it isn't just the invading soldiers who are culpable; local villagers are to blame as well.

As Brodeck writes his reports, it becomes obvious to him and to the reader that he is in danger.  The villagers who murdered "the other," and who have ordered Brodeck to write his report, do not trust him.  "The other" was murdered because he held up a mirror to each person in the village.  Now we fear Brodeck will meet the same end for shining a light on the villagers' crimes.  Philippe Claudel is a master at building tension; I found this book to be a literary page-turner as I read furiously to find out what would happen.

Questions of who is to blame, who is complicit, how to survive, what we choose to remember, whether we even can choose to remember, how history becomes "fact,"--all this and much more is in this intriguing novel.  It would generate a great discussion for a book club, but I'm not sure everyone would enjoy reading it.  If heavy subjects don't put you off, and if you're drawn to atmospheric writing, then you'll probably like it.  Whether you read it or not, do not miss the film I've Loved You So Long.  And bring your tissues.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Orange Prize Short List Announced!

Oh dear.  The short list for the Orange Prize has been announced, and I didn't like three out of the six novels on the list.  You'll recall that my Literary Masters book groups read last year's winner, The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.  That was a wonderfully literary novel, which I blogged about here.

This year's short list is as follows:

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht.  Here we go.  I can just see this book sweeping the literary awards, and as you know, it left me...underwhelmed.  I blogged on it here.

Great House by Nicole Krauss.  Ugh.  I blogged about it here.

Room by Emma Donaghue.  I know that I said I wouldn't read this book, but I did.  And I found it creepily compelling for the first half, and then I thought it fell apart in the second half.  Yes, I, like others, found the boy's voice believable and, as I said, compelling, but that wasn't enough to sustain me.

Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson.  I haven't read it, but it takes place in an institution for the mentally ill, and is about a relationship between the two patients.

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna.  I haven't read this either, but it's evidently about the Sierra Leonean civil war.  Or the aftermath.  Or both.  I'm sure I'd learn a lot anyway.  I think I may read this one.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter is about a hermaphrodite whose parents' choice of surgery has massive consequences in the child's life.  I may read this one as well.

One book that did not make the list that I have on my TBR shelf is Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad.

For more on the Orange Prize and its short list, click here.  And let me know what you think--which novel do you feel should win?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

I Haven't WHIRLed in Ages!

As you know, WHIRL stands for What Have I Read Lately.  Recently I asked my Jane Austen Literary Salon what books (besides Jane's six novels that we are reading and discussing in the salon) they have enjoyed lately or what books are on their all-time faves list.  Here's what they said:

Moby Dick by Herman Melville, "because the entire universe is contained in it, and it's still so compelling today."

Wow, makes me want to re-read that wonderful novel!  The last time I read it was with the fabulous Professor Zimmerman in my 19th Century American Lit class.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, "an amazing piece of literature."

Yep, one of my favorites, too.  I am a big fan of Kingsolver; as you know, one of my Literary Masters book selections this season was The Lacuna, another winner.


Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a "creepy page-turner with amazing insight into people's psyches as well as very well written social interactions."

Hmm...makes me want to pick this up again.  I started it awhile ago, and found it too...yes, creepy!...to continue.  Perhaps I'll give it another try.

Austenland by Shannon Hale--"I listened to the book on tape on a car trip and have not laughed so much in a long, long time."

Well, I hope you weren't the one driving!  I tend to close my eyes when I'm laughing that hard.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.  "I have not read this, but am fascinated by the concept of tasting the emotions of the cooks who prepared the foods eaten."

Hmm...I'm not sure it counts if you haven't read the book you're recommending!  The same concept was explored in Chocolat, no?
 The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell and The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz "are wonderful books.  Both are historical fiction, although Oscar Wao is much more recent."

Two fantastic books, I do agree!  Literary Masters book groups read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao last season, and everyone loved it, and we are reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet right now!

"The Bone People by Keri Hulme for fiction.  Traveling with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Taylor Kidd for non-fiction."

I haven't read either of these books, but I like the title of the non-fiction book.

"The best recent piece of fiction is The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.  I like her as well as Jane which is saying a lot.  She's also written Gourmet Rhapsody which is not as good but still very good indeed."

Very interesting...I have heard mixed reviews of The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

"There are three non-fiction books by Michael Lewis that I have read this year and that I am wild about.  My favorite I guess is The Big Short, which is the most intelligible and readable account of what caused the current financial crisis.  The other two are Moneyball and The Blind Side, which are about sports but there's a whole lot about people and prejudice and analytical thinking." 

I just took The Big Short out of the library; I can't wait to read it!

Hey, there's more to WHIRL about, but that's all for now.  Stay tuned for my next WHIRL post.  And don't forget to tell me what you've been reading lately!