We are thrilled to announce that Hooked Bookworm and Opinionless have joined forces!! Our new site, Typographical Era, will officially launch on January 1, 2013, but in the meantime, we’ll be entertaining you with a countdown of our favorite books that we read in 2012. We'll be revealing one a day so stay tuned!
And don’t forget to
like our new page and follow us on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter. The wait is
over...welcome to the Typographical Era!
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Pretty soon, however, Monsieur Baratte finds that the task is much more challenging than he first expected. He thought his presence as the city's purifier would be a breath of fresh air to the Parisians, but they are strangely suspicious of Baratte's intentions. Les Innocents is rotting the city from the inside out, but the townspeople are curiously attached to it and hesitant to interrupt the eternal slumber of the dead. As the project progresses, Baratte finds himself increasingly paranoid and alone, despite his efforts to purge the city of its unsavory past. Baratte finds some solace in the friendship of Armand, a church organist, and Heloise, a Parisian prostitute, but it's not enough to make him forget that most of the city, including his workers, despise him.
They say that Rome wasn't built in a day and Andrew Miller's novel reminds us that neither was Paris. The city of romance, the city of lights was, in Baratte's day, a city of filth and poverty, and even though his presence means progress for the city, Baratte finds that traditions are even harder overcome than stacks of bodies.
Pure is a very fascinating piece of historical fiction. While John-Baptiste Baratte is a fictional character, the story of Les Innocents is solidly grounded in Paris history, and Miller's re-imagining of this volatile social and economic time is beautifully rendered, despite the unsavory subject matter. But even so, the book sometimes felt lethargic and detached, and Baratte's personal story felt somewhat withdrawn from the novel's themes. Perhaps this is due to his own misgivings about the task and his insecurity as a force of change and momentum. Despite this, Pure offers a bittersweet journey to 18th century Paris, and the subject matter, while grim and sinister, couldn't be more perfect for this time of year.
Saturday, October 27, 2012
I don't know about you, but something about cool, overcast fall days makes me want to snuggle into a giant chair with a mug of hot chocolate and a nice piece of classic literature. Maybe it's the introspective nature of the season, or the longer nights, but for me, autumn is a time for classic reading. Here are a few of my favorite works of classic literature that are just perfect for this time of year:
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Just in case my Halloween Books for All Ages post didn't satisfy your craving for
The Broke and the Bookish: Top Ten Books to Get into the Halloween Spirit
A Bookworm Belle: Top Ten Books To Get You In The Halloween Spirit
Flavorwire: A Highbrow Halloween Reading List
Josh Hanagarne's list of 51 Scary Reads (as posted on Between the Covers)
Friday, October 19, 2012
The Man Booker Prize hype is over and Hilary Mantel has taken home her trophy, but for those of you who are interested, here is the final podcast in our BookerMarks podcast series, where my fellow collaborators analyze and discuss Deborah Levy's shortlisted novel, Swimming Home.
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Congratulations to Hilary Mantel, the recipient of this year's Man Booker Prize. Mantel is the first British woman to win the prize twice...the only other authors who have won twice are Peter Carey and J.M. Coetzee.
If you've been following me and my collaborative bloggers on BookerMarks, then you also know that we successfully predicted Mantel as this year's winner. Yaaay!
To read more about the big announcement, head on over to the Man Booker Prize's website!
Monday, October 15, 2012
Those of you who have been keeping up with me on BookerMarks already know that 6 other bloggers and I have been closely following the Man Booker Prize nominees since the longlist was announced in July. The original longlist of 12 titles was eventually whittled down to 6 finalists, and the winner will be announced tomorrow evening. Of the 12 longlisted titles, I was able to read and review 10, but based on my reviews and ratings, here are Hooked Bookworm's top 5 Man Booker Prize-nominated titles:
Sunday, October 14, 2012
We all know that there is a deep connection between memory and the senses. Sights, scents, and sounds can trigger all sorts of complicated emotional responses, but for the main character in Alison Moore's Man Booker shortlisted novel, memory is hypersensitive, puzzling, and often devastating. Futh is a quiet, middle-aged man on Holiday in Germany after a recent separation from his wife, Angela. Their marriage has ended before Futh can accurately process exactly why, so he takes a short "vacation" to clear his head and try to figure out where things went wrong. Along the way, he stays in a small, locally-operated hotel referred to as Hellhaus. At the hotel, Futh finds the staff to be quite peculiar, especially Ester, who operates the hotel with her husband, Bernard. As Futh embarks upon his painful and tedious journey of memory and self-exploration, we are alternately transported back to Hellhaus, where Futh's presence has triggered a completely separate, but somehow connected resurgence of memories and abandoned thoughts.
As Futh scratches the surface of why his relationship with Angela failed, he is unpleasantly reminded of the other various failed relationships throughout his life, including that of his father, various neighbors, friends, relatives, and of course, his wife. But while Futh is picking at old wounds, he is continually reminded of the deepest and most painful memory - Futh's mother abandoned him and his father during Futh's childhood, and he has never fully recovered from the tragic abandonment, probably because he never understood why his mother left in the first place. Futh is left with certain scents and images to remind him of his long-gone mother, but most of all, he is entranced by a silver lighthouse that once contained a vial of his mother's perfume.
While Futh originally set out on a journey to achieve peace, quiet, and possibly clarity, he finds himself increasingly and mysteriously overwhelmed by the scent of oranges, cigarette smoke, violets, and camphor. All of these scents trigger various memories for both Futh and Ester, but neither are aware of how they intersect and why the emotional association is so strong. Alison Moore's novel is a melancholy portrayal of loneliness, abandonment, restlessness, and regret, but Futh and Ester's stories are quietly powerful, and their memories serve as reminders of the events in our past from which our senses will never let us escape.
This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 10/14/12
BookerMarks now! I plan to have my own review up by the end of the day...
Thursday, October 11, 2012
We also recently finished our podcast/discussion of Tan Twan Eng's novel, The Garden of Evening Mists. You can check that out over at BookerMarks as well.
Monday, October 8, 2012
Jeet Thayil's Man Booker Prize-nominated novel is set in Bombay, India during the 1970s and 80s, where the city's slums are overrun with dogs, children, and detriment, and the opium dens are always full. Narcopolis chronicles the lives of several addicts during the cultural shift from opium to cheaply-made heroin. We meet Rashid, who owns and operates the opium shop along with the help of Dimple, a eunuch prostitute known for making the best pipe in the city. Our narrator, Dom, wafts in and out of the story, and slowly, through flickering opium-blurred images, we see a cultural portrait emerge - one of religion, gender, sex, tradition, addiction, and the fine balance between pleasure and pain.
Narcopolis explores the multifaceted nature of the "lowest of the low, prostitutes and criminals and drug addicts, people with no faith in god or man, no faith in anything except the truth of their own senses." And Narcopolis is indeed a novel of the senses. It's not always pleasant or comfortable, but Thayil's masterful, poetic prose is impossible to ignore - primarily because it will make you squirm and cringe. But at the same time, Thayil's language is honest, sorrowful, and filled with simple, but wise observations about the relationship between freedom and addiction.
Jeet Thayil has said in recent interviews that he was himself an opium addict for 20 years, and this perspective has allowed him to write a book that is neither condemning nor glorifying drug culture, but rather presenting its reality from the perspective of the addicts. The characters are tortured and miserable, but they're also sympathetic and hopeful. With Narcopolis, Thayil enlightens readers to the true nature of obsession and addiction with no political agenda or judgements. For these characters, the addiction is consuming, but it does not snuff out their humanity. Only Thayil's empathy and memory can inject the hopeless and destitute wanderers of Narcopolis with the compassion and understanding that their reputations so often belie.
This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 10/8/12
Friday, October 5, 2012
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
In Tan Twan Eng's Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel, Yun Ling is desperately trying to preserve her memories before a neurological illness destroys her mind and body. Through this act of reconstruction and preservation, the horrifying experience of Yun Ling's life in a WWII Japanese internment camp is revealed, as well as her heartbreaking tale of sacrifice, survival and recovery. As the sole survivor of the war camp, Yun Ling is unable to forgive herself for leaving her sister behind, and seeks to preserve her memory through the construction of an elaborate Japanese garden. Soon, she begins an apprenticeship with Aritomo - a reclusive, but highly-respected Japanese artist and gardener. Aritomo was once the gardener to the Emperor, but he eventually settled in Malaya, where he meets Yun Ling, who is still incredibly suspicious of and frightened by the Japanese, but willing to endure Aritomo's teachings for the sake of her sister's memory.
But soon, Yun Ling's apprenticeship with Aritomo develops into a quiet, but complicated romance, and she finds out that their paths have intersected since her childhood. Despite their intimacy, Aritomo is reluctant to share his history with his lover, and the couple compensates with a bond over nature and art. Aritomo soon reveals that he is a master of the art of horimono tattoos - a practice that is both sacred and controversial - and he recruits Yun Ling as his next subject. The tattoo takes months to complete, and when it is finished, Yun Ling is mesmerized by the skillful design of the tattoo. It is certainly beautiful, but there is something mysterious and cryptic about the patterns and markings. As Yun Ling completes her biographical account, she is enlightened to the true meaning of the horimono - a discovery that answers questions from long ago and allows her to finally complete her long-awaited journey of healing.
The Garden of Evening Mists is a tender story of grief, faith, sacrifice, and redemption, and the plot is well-crafted, but for me, this is not the Man Booker Prize winner. As some other critiques of this novel have stated, the second half of the story is disappointingly predictable and the character development is somewhat underwhelming. Even so, The Garden of Evening Mists is a fascinating depiction of war-era Malaya - a period of WWII history that is often overlooked. Tan Twan Eng skillfully weaves the violence of war with the beauty and delicacy of Aritomo's garden to create a story that is quite a sensory experience. The lush, vibrant landscape becomes the novel's most compelling character and reminds readers of the harmonious healing powers that nature can exude.
This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 10/2/12
Saturday, September 29, 2012
BookerMarks discussion of the Man Booker Prize nominees will be happy to know that podcast #2 is now available. In this installment, we discuss Hilary Mantel's shortlisted title, Bring Up the Bodies, and next week we will be talking about Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists. And just so y'all know, none of this would be possible without our amazing editor/organizer, Aaron. You can check out his literary musings over at Opinionless! Other contributors to BookerMarks include: The Literary Hoarders, A Reader and a Rider, and 40 Gigs and a Mule
Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Hilary Mantel's brilliant sequel to her 2009 novel, Wolf Hall, has once again earned her a spot on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. Bring Up the Bodies is a continuance of Thomas Cromwell's story as it intersects with Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. As the novel opens, it is the fall of 1535 - Former Queen Katherine of Aragon is on her deathbed and current Queen, Anne Boleyn, is also inching dangerously close to death. She has made many promises in her relentless efforts to become Queen, yet the most important promise - to produce a male heir to the throne - has yet to be fulfilled. In the meantime, rumors have begun to circulate that perhaps Anne has not been faithful to her husband, and that, perhaps their daughter, Elizabeth, was fathered by another man.
Pretty soon, the swirling rumors reach the ears of the King, and although Henry is outraged at the prospect of his wife's extramarital encounters, he also sees it as an opportunity to rid himself of Anne Boleyn, who has turned out to be more trouble than pleasure for Henry. And of course, "Queens come and go," so Henry enlists the help of Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell to remove Anne Boleyn of her position so that a new (and hopefully more fertile) Queen can take her place. Luckily for Cromwell, "the affairs of the whole realm are whispered in his ear," so the process of Anne's removal is expedited. In fact, it takes just about a month for Cromwell to compile a case against Anne, have her tried in court, and finally beheaded. The crimes against the infamous Queen include treason, incest, and adultery, and her trial and subsequent death prove to be extremely consequential for the Tudors. Many others are sent to their deaths because of what they may or may not have said and done with Anne Boleyn, and Henry's Court is in disarray after living in the midst of potential conspirators and traitors.
But even before the death of his second wife Henry's lust has found a new target - Jane Seymour. Miss Seymour is known for her reputation of purity, innocence, and humility, and Henry would love nothing more than to marry her immediately and impregnate her with (fingers crossed!) a son. And Henry is the King, so, with the help of the ever-faithful Cromwell, England has a new Queen less than 2 weeks after the death of Anne Boleyn.
To British history buffs, the Tudors' story is nothing new. Henry VIII was one of the most infamous and highly-discussed English monarchs, and his relationships with his (count em') 6 wives have been fairly well documented throughout history. But Mantel isn't really interested in Henry or Anne or Jane or Katherine. Of course they're all important players, but none of them compare to the true mastermind of these Tudor events. Thomas Cromwell was always there, quietly listening in the shadows, writing everything down and memorizing every single detail of the King's personal and private affairs so that he would be prepared for anything and everything imaginable. Thomas Cromwell made things happen before the King even realized he wanted them to happen. He's been called cold, cruel, calculated, and evil. But he was also probably one of the most intelligent and well-informed men in Tudor history - despite what he may have accomplished or destroyed with such knowledge.
Either way, Bring Up the Bodies offers readers a new perspective on Henry VIII's relationship with Anne Boleyn - one that focuses on the pragmatic aspect of the surrounding events rather than the emotional or romantic facets. As Hilary Mantel has said, Cromwell "is still in need of attention from biographers,"but even the most skilled biographer may have trouble bringing Cromwell's story to life compared to Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.
Mantel is currently writing the third installment of this Henry VIII trilogy, which is titled The Mirror and the Light. Bring Up the Bodies is on the 2012 Man Booker Prize shortlist (which she won in 2009 for Wolf Hall), and The Mirror and the Light is probably already nominated for the 2013 prize. I hope so. And I hope she wins!
This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks
Sunday, September 23, 2012
If any of y'all have been following the other blog I contribute to, BookerMarks, then you'll be happy to know that our first podcast discussion of Will Self's Man Book Prize shortlisted novel, Umbrella, is now available for your listening pleasure. Check it out here!
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Buried deep under a mess of contractions, grammatical debris, and indecipherable Cockney slang lies a story - a nouveau modernist tale that reads kind of like a hybrid of Dada, Faulkner, Eliot, and Dr. Seuss. In Will Self's Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel, we are introduced to Zack Busner, a psychiatrist at Friern Hospital in London. Busner and his staff primarily deal with victims of Encephalitis Lethargica - an epidemic that spread around the time of World War I and leaves its victims in a catatonic state. Busner has been treating these patients for years with no luck, but eventually, Audrey Death begins to respond to his treatments.
Audrey has been a patient at Friern for longer than Busner has been there, and as she slowly emerges from her catatonic state and the clouds of her mind clear away, Busner is shocked at how difficult and challenging it is to rehabilitate post-encephalitic patients in a modern world. While Audrey has absorbed more of her surroundings than Busner previously thought, most of her thoughts are stuck in the time before her affliction, and it is the hospital staff's unenviable task to modernize and rehabilitate these Sleeping Beauty patients. After a few weeks of this, Busner begins to wonder if perhaps patients like Audrey would be "better off" if their rotting brains were left alone, but it's too late to turn back now.
Told in the alternating voices of Audrey and Dr. Busner throughout who knows how many time periods, Umbrella should be a compelling read about war, modernity, sex, gender, experimental medicine, and the lack of accountability in the mental health system - but it's not. Well, it might actually be about those things, but unless you're armed with a pretty highfalutin vocabulary, a working knowledge of Cockney accents and London slang, and the 3D decoder from the accompanying Umbrella cereal box, then you might just find yourself completely lost in the literary rain without a literate umbrella.
This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks
Friday, September 14, 2012
Father Declan de Loughry has lived a relatively quiet life in a quaint little Irish town. When he's not serving his parishioners, he's usually fishing for salmon and meditating. As Haien's novel opens, Father Declan is fishing for salmon with very little luck and distracted by thoughts of Kevin and Enda Dennehy. The Dennehy's have been a staple in their small community for decades, and Kevin has just unexpectedly passed away. But Father Declan is not preoccupied by grief - yes, Kevin's death is tragic, but even more worrisome is the confession that Kevin made to his priest just before his death. Unfortunately, Kevin died before he could finish the story, so it's up to his wife, Enda, to deliver the rest of the tale and confess "the all of it."
As Enda reveals secret after secret, Father Declan is overwhelmed by truth. Right before his death, Kevin confessed that he and Enda were never actually married, but he died before he got a chance to explain. Now it's up to Enda to reveal the truth - and the truth is painful, tragic, and controversial. Father Declan is so astounded at the depth and nature of her story that he is unsure how to handle the truth. His first instinct is to point fingers and condemn, but as Enda reveals more complications and hidden corners in her story, Father Declan's opinion of the Dennehy's shifts between amazement, horror, sympathy, and compassion.
The All of It is a very small, but moving story built at the intersection of religion, morality, and circumstance. Father Declan's first reaction to Enda's confession is horror and embarrassment. He spits heavy words at Enda, saying "I'm personally mortified for the two of you. What have you been thinking these many years...before God with your sin...and deceiving your neighbors-" (p. 12). But the truth is more complicated than he ever imagined and by the end of the novel, Father Declan must face his own moral dilemma.
Written in 1986 but still incredibly relevant, Jeannette Haien's debut novel is a compelling examination of a case where hard and fast religious boundaries are blurred by circumstance and tragedy - where blame is elusive and sin is uncertain. Haien's novel may not feel overtly powerful, but its grace and candor cannot be overlooked as readers are reminded that grief, guilt, desire, and empathy are profoundly complex human emotions, and that morality can prove to be baffling and indecipherable just when we think we've mastered it.
Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Narcopolis - Jeet Thayil
Umbrella - Will Self
The Lighthouse - Alison Moore
Bring Up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel
Swimming Home - Deborah Levy
The Garden of Evening Mists - Tam Twan Eng
What do you think of this year's shortlist? To see reviews of titles on both the longlist and shortlist, head on over to BookerMarks. Over the next month, we'll be keeping a close eye on the shortlisted titles as we read through the list, but for now, check out our Shortlist Standings to see how we've ranked to eligible titles so far. The official winner will be announced on October 16.
Sunday, September 9, 2012
On the Greek island of Skios, guests of the Fred Toppler Foundation are eagerly awaiting the keynote address of world-renowned scientist, Dr. Norman Wilfred. But the Dr. Wilfred who appears is not at all like they imagined - especially for Nikki, the overworked, under-appreciated and exhausted organizer of this high-profile event. Nikki is stunned to find that Dr. Wilfred is young, handsome, and extremely charismatic rather than the middle-aged, formal academic she was expecting to meet. In fact, Dr. Wilfred is so unbelievably personable, considering that he is a highly-acclaimed, brilliant scientist and researcher, that Nikki and the rest of the guests are stunned by his charm and wit. Dr. Norman Wilfred is seemingly a godsend for the stuffy, staunch Foundation, but there's just one problem....the man claiming to be Dr. Wilfred isn't Dr. Wilfred at all. He's just a young, bored, spontaneous man who happened to be mistaken for the distinguished scientist. Most normal people would quickly correct a mistaken identity, but not Oliver Fox. Oliver is tire of being Oliver, so why not be Dr. Wilfred for a few days? Everyone seems convinced enough.
Across the island, a young girl named Georgie has just arrived at her vacation villa expecting to meet Oliver for a long, possibly romantic retreat, but instead of the handsome young Oliver, she finds the highly confused and overwhelmed Dr. Wilfred. He claims to be some sort of doctor who has arrived on the island to deliver a lecture, so why the hell is he in her villa? And where in the world could Oliver be? Such are the questions raised in Michael Frayn's longlisted novel of farcical comedy and absurdity.
Skios isn't at all what I expected for a Man Booker Prize contender. It's outrageous, silly, and, well, kind of like a Monty Python sketch. But at the same time, it's also subtly poignant and thought-provoking. Skios reminds us that our identities are completely dependent on others' perceptions of us, whether we like it or not. And no matter how much you believe that "only you can be you," well.....all it really takes to screw that up is one case of mistaken identity and a guy like Oliver to play along. It's that easy.
And as if the plot line weren't funny and ridiculous enough, the book is also filled with a very colorful and eccentric supporting cast. From Sheiks to former showgirls, the cast of Skios provide all the tools you need to properly make fun of academia and intellectuals. And what better place to do it than the birthplace of philosophy and western civilization?
I must applaud Michael Frayn for successfully writing such an involved and complicated comedy, but sometimes the comedic elements did feel a bit overwhelming, especially toward the ending, where everything falls apart and comes together at the same time. It's basically like literary fireworks - loud, overwhelming, and extrasensory - but incredibly entertaining nonetheless.
This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 9/9/12
Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Well, I have returned home safely from Atlanta where I attended the Decatur Book Festival! The DBF is the largest independent book festival in the country, by the way, and it gets better and better every year. This year featured over 300 authors, including Erin Morgenstern, Chelsea Cain, and Julie Otsuka. The majority of the events were scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, and unfortunately, there was a great deal of schedule overlapping so I wasn't able to see everyone.
Highlights from this trip include meeting Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia and The Monsters of Templeton, and Sheila Turnage, who wrote the charming new children's novel, Three Times Lucky. Turnage read a few chapters from her novel and answered some adorable children's questions. She also mentioned that there will be a sequel to Three Times Lucky, which I am already anxiously awaiting. Lauren Groff's presentation was much more intimate and conversational, and while I have not read any of her novels or her short story collection, I am now the proud owner of both her novels, which I am looking forward to reading...eventually!
I was also able to attend a reading/book discussion by Gail Tsukiyama, which was incredibly fascinating. I really enjoyed reading The Samurai's Garden, and now I'm looking forward to Tsukiyama's newest novel, A Hundred Flowers. And I have to say, while I wouldn't really consider myself a huge Meg Cabot fan (I've only read one of her novels), her presentation was probably the most entertaining of all. She is absolutely hilarious, down-to-earth, and extremely personable. Seriously, you should have seen the line of folks lined up to get their copies of The Princess Diaries signed. It was nuts! But it was a small line compared to that of Captain Underpants series author Dav Pilkey. He must have signed over 1000 books! The line wrapped around a city block and Mr. Pilkey was at the signing table for hours. I must applaud that level of commitment to his fan base, because those kids were hopped up on popsicles and funnel cakes, screaming, and climbing trees while he patiently signed books in the 95 degree heat and humidity. What a stand-up guy!
I was also able to see Michael Connelly and Michael Kortya, but I've never read any of their books, so it wasn't quite as exciting as the others. It's impossible to see everyone, and I regret the fact that I was unable to meet Erin Morgenstern, Amber Dermont, Julie Otsuka, and Rob Reid. My husband just finished (and highly enjoyed) Reid's new book, Year Zero, by the way. Plus, it's just so easy to get distracted by the tents and vendor tables. Literally, y'all, tents FILLED with books that are irresistably cheap, not to mention the book-related crafts, such as handmade journals and bookmarks, the amazing food, and free stuff. So much free stuff! One of the reasons why this post is a day late is because it took me forever to unpack everything I accumulated in Atlanta. And of course, I managed a quick trip to H&M, but I'm so proud of myself because I only bought 2 things!
And just so y'all know, the DBF is completely free (unless you buy a ton of stuff), kid-friendly, family-friendly, and oh so fun. For a bibliophile like myself, it's like a little corner of heaven, except that heaven is probably not as hot and humid as Georgia. But such is the nature of summertime in the south!
Friday, August 31, 2012
Last year, the DBF saw the likes of Clyde Edgerton, Tom Perrotta, and Karen Russell (among many others), and this year the festival will feature more than 300 authors, including Erin Morgenstern, Michael Connelly, David Levithan, Lauren Groff, Kevin Henkes, Sheila Turnage, Julie Otsuka, and Gail Tsukiyama. Seriously, y'all, it gives me chills.
If you want to know more about the DBF, check out their events schedule and full author listing. I'm so excited I can hardly stand it. Now I'm off to finish packing! I shall return on Monday with a full report and an empty wallet. I hope y'all enjoy the holiday weekend as well!
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Karen Russell's debut, Pulitzer Prize nominated novel takes us deep into the Florida marshes to Swamplandia!, which was once "the Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Cafe in the area." Swamplandia! featured all kinds of attractions, but their headliner was the famous Hilola Bigtree: wife, mother of three, and "world-famous alligator wrestler." But in the prime of Swamplandia!, Hilola died suddenly of an extremely aggressive form of ovarian cancer. Hilola's death is earth-shattering for the rest of the Bigtree family, but 13 year-old Ava Bigtree is determined to follow in her mother's footsteps and master the skill of gator wrestling.
Unfortunately, the rest of the Bigtrees aren't as optimistic about the park's future. Ava's older sister, Osceola, has retreated inside herself and claims to be both possessed by and engaged to a ghost. Their older brother, Kiwi, decides to leave the swamp and find a job on the mainland, and their father, The Chief, is increasingly vague on the subject of their financial situation. But Ava is determined to save the swamp and reunite her family - a job that turns out to be much more perilous than wrestling gators.
Swamplandia! follows a variety of themes, but more than anything, it is a novel about loss and grief. As Ava says in retrospect, "I didn't realize that one tragedy can beget another, and another - bright-eyed disasters flooding out of a death hole like bats out of a cave" (p. 9). But Ava soon finds out that dying isn't the worst part of death. Grief is much worse, especially the kind that tears your family apart, clouds your judgment, and challenges your sanity. Osceola is metaphorically "possessed" by grief. Ava's grief is suppressed by concern for her sister and the future of the park, but bubbling just below the murky surface in her desire to become a gator wrestler. And Kiwi's grief is played out in his descent into The World of Darkness - a rival mainland theme park where he is employed. The Bigtree family at first attempts an attitude of "the show must go on," but how can the show go on if the star is dead and the supporting cast is in mourning?
The novel also explores the dichotomy of memory and reality. Osceola stays as far away from reality as possible, but Ava and Kiwi must slowly face the towering facts. While Hilola Bigtree is a superhero to her family, in reality, Swamplandia! was never much more than an obscure sideshow attraction. In the cold light of maturity, their shimmering childhood is not quite as bright as they remember.
For the quirky, eccentric characters of Swamplandia!, life is full of haunted little surprises. This is especially true for Ava, whose narration serves to chronicle the end of her mother's story just as much as it charts the beginning of her own coming-of-age story. And this idea of a blurry convergence is where Karen Russell really shines as a writer. Whether it's the convergence of life and death, innocence and experience, or fear and courage, Swamplandia! couldn't be a more perfect locale for such a merging. After all, there's no better place for redemption than a southern swampland, right?
This book received tremendous praise after its Pulitzer Prize nomination, and while I agree that Russell's prose is spectacular, it's important to keep in mind that Swamplandia! is a very character-driven novel. Compared to the level of character development, the plot may feel a bit lackluster, and even disjointed at times. But even so, Karen Russell's poetic prose and stylistic subtleties are more than enough to engage readers.
Friday, August 24, 2012
Joe, Isabel, and their daughter Nina aren't exactly a happy family, but they're pretending well enough. Joe is a world-famous poet, Isabel is a highly-respected journalist, and young Nina is caught somewhere between her parents' competing personalities. The family is on a much-needed vacation in Nice doing their best to relax - at least until Kitty Finch shows up. Kitty is wild and unpredictable, and she completely takes the family off guard with her fragile appearance and bizarre behavior.
It soon comes to light that Kitty's "accidental" encounter with the family was indeed calculated. She confronts Joe as an aspiring poet and fan of his work in the hopes that he will read her poetry. But Kitty's poetry turns out to be rather sinister as the themes imply certain death - but is it Kitty's Finch's own death that is suggested, or someone else's?
Swimming Home is a very compact little book. At just over 100 pages, Deborah Levy explores a number of different themes - violence, old age, infidelity, mental illness, and social hierarchies to name a few - but the book felt unfinished and the ideas incomplete. Perhaps if the novel were a little longer Levy could have further developed and polished the characters, but the book ends just as you're beginning to settle into the characters and understand their motivations. That being said, the prose has consistent moments of poignancy and dark humor. Levy is especially successful at conveying Joe's humorous disconnect as a father and the struggle to relate to his fans. When young Nina starts her period for the first time, Joe shakes his daughter's hand and proclaims, "Congratulations. Your mother told me you've started your period at last...um...have you got everything you need...you know, for a girl who has just started?" And later, Joe muses over his "depressed" fan base, declaring:
I can't stand the DEPRESSED. It's like a job, it's the only thing they work hard at. Oh good my depression is very well today. Oh good today I have another mysterious symptom and I will have another one tomorrow. The DEPRESSED are full of hate and bile and when they are not having panic attacks they are writing poems. (p. 65)Sorry, Joe, but depressed folks love poetry, and ironically, Joe is one of the unhappiest characters in the book.
Kitty's mysterious and seemingly unstable nature is also intriguing, but she could be so much more dynamic, as could Nina's coming-of-age story. Kitty is a disturbing force of nature to this family, but her presence in the text is too weak for my liking. Ultimately, Swimming Home has the potential to be a very compelling thriller with extremely delicate sub-themes, but unfortunately, this novella falls short (pun intended!).
This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 8/24/12
Monday, August 20, 2012
André Brink's 2012 longlisted novel tells the story of Philida, a slave in South Africa in the mid 1830s. Philida's story begins with a journey to the slave protector's office, where she files a formal complaint against her master's son, Frans. Over the years, Frans has promised Philida freedom in the heat of lovemaking, but has yet to deliver on his word. In the meantime, Philida has given birth to several of Frans's children, and she is impatient and frustrated. But when Philida files her complaint, she is informed that, because Frans was never her master, he does not have the power to grant her freedom. Only Frans's father, Cornelis Brink, has such power, but he is an angry, cruel man and does not care about the well-being of Philida or his enslaved grandchildren.
Despite Philida's low social status, she refuses to take no for an answer and devises her own means of escape and freedom, but not without encountering a great deal of pain and hardship along the way. Told from alternating narrative voices, Philida is a heartbreaking, but inspiring story of one woman's bravery and determination to achieve freedom for herself and her young children.
Early on in the story, Philida's voice is weak and hopeless - especially in regards to her uncertain future. She says, "I belong nowhere. What happen to me will always be what others want to happen. I am a piece of knitting that is knitted by somebody else" (p. 60). But as the story progresses, Philida slowly begins to take control of her life and her destiny, and by the end of the novel she proclaims: "I am free because I am free. Because I myself take my freedom. I take it and I choose it" (p. 236). However, like most stories of slavery, freedom comes at a steep price, and Philida endures a great deal of violence and trauma in her endeavors.
As Opinionless mentioned in their review of Philida, images of sexual abuse are quite frequent (and graphic) in the first part of the novel. While I am quite aware of the sexual degradation that slaves experienced, Brink's descriptions often felt overwhelming and a bit gratuitous at times. Perhaps time could have been better spent in the efforts of character development rather than character debasement - it just makes Philida come across as a woman who has been singularly defined by men and their penises, which is disappointing, because Philida is so much more dynamic than that. Or, at least she could be.
While I respect Brink's efforts to portray such a volatile time in South Africa, he might have been a bit overzealous in regards to the various narrative voices. There are so many perspectives and narrative modes, it makes the book feel unorganized and incomplete. I understand that Brink is trying to engage readers' sympathies from both sides of the story by including the voices of Cornelis and Frans, but it felt fragmented rather than dynamic. And to tell you the truth, it was boring at times. It was difficult to sympathize with any of the characters (other than Philida), because the narratives felt incomplete and splintered. But many of these characters have appeared in other Brink novels, so perhaps Philida would be best read in succession with his related novels. As Brink has mentioned, this book is based on his own family history. One of his direct ancestors was a slaveholder named Cornelis Brink, and Philida was derived as an imagining of life on the Brinks' farm during this time.
As Philida progresses, the novel explores the influence of Islam in The Cape - especially the way slave life was affected by the spread of Islamic teachings. Brink skillfully weaves religion into the story through various characters, narratives, and folktales, and the way Philida perceives her newfound religious knowledge is fascinating. Unlike many of her peers, she allows religion to inspire and guide her rather than control her. She never uses religion as a tool for vindication or revenge, but as a pathway to understanding and internal peace. By the end of the novel, we see a completely different person in Philida - we see a woman with pride, direction, and confidence:
" In the brown water of the Gariep I shall wash myself clean. I do not want to be whiter than snow as the Ouman use to say. Brown is what I am and brown is what I want to be. Like stone. Like soil. Like the earth. Brown like everything that is worthwhile. Brown I will wash myself. A new person I will be. Brown." (p. 238)As outlined in the story, slavery was abolished in the South African Cape on December 1, 1834, but Philida seeks more than just physical freedom. She seeks hope, resolution, and a new legacy. And this is where the novel abruptly ends. Once again, the potential for a great, charismatic novel is lost in itself, but at least Philida's transformation is complete. We may not know what the future holds for Philida, but she is more than equipped to handle it.
This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 8/20/12
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Ann Bannon's classic pulp novel introduces us to Laura Landon, a freshman at a midwestern college, who is extremely shy and quiet, but determined to join a sorority. Soon Laura moves into the sorority house and meets her new roommates, Beth and Emmy. Emmy is a wild, outgoing party girl - and maybe just a little boy crazy. But Beth is older, wiser, and much more aloof when it comes to relationships. Sure, she's dated plenty of men, but she never seems to be in a committed relationship. At first, Laura is intimidated by Beth's commanding presence, but it doesn't take long for the girls to become close friends - and within a few weeks, both the girls are aware of a magnetic, intense attraction between the two of them. They may not completely understand it, but they don't fight it, and by the end of the first semester, Beth and Laura are lovers.
But things get complicated for Laura and Beth when Charlie enters the picture. Charlie is an old friend of Laura's, but he is noticeably attracted to Beth - always complimenting her, staring dreamily at her, and constantly making excuses to spend time together. And what worries Laura the most is the fact that Beth seems to enjoy the attention from Charlie. But more than that, she seems to encourage it. The rest of the novel explores the tumultuous, intense aspects of Beth and Laura's romance as both Laura and Charlie fight for Beth's affections.
Compared to today's standards, Odd Girl Out is incredibly tame, but when it was published in 1957, it was scandalous and shocking. In the age of The L Word and Sex and the City, it isn't abnormal to see depictions of same-sex couples engaged in graphic sexual behavior, but more than 50 years ago, homosexuality was still illegal, not to mention a complete social taboo. After all, 1957 was the same year Leave it to Beaver made its television debut, so you can probably imagine how the first lesbian pulp novel was received by the media. But (not surprisingly), Odd Girl Out was a bestseller. Gays and lesbians were thrilled to see a positive, realistic depiction of homosexuality in literature, and straight folks were curious as to what all the fuss was about.
So with this novel, Ann Bannon unknowingly launched the lesbian pulp movement in America. Odd Girl Out became the first in the Beebo Brinker Chronicles, a series of 6 novels featuring Laura Landon and a host of other nontraditional literary characters. Odd Girl Out is surprisingly subdued considering the cultural shock waves its publication initiated. But when the world is reading things like the 50 Shades trilogy, a kiss on the lips between two women is nothing to bat an eye at. But it's important to remember that Ann Bannon paved the way for "queer lit," and with her novels, she bravely acknowledged that heterosexuality doesn't have to be the only option for romance, sex, and relationships.
Odd Girl Out is not sultry or steamy, and the writing is neither complex nor imaginative, but that's ok, because it wasn't written for literary critics. It was written to fill a literary void, and to demystify and openly address a very controversial topic. So the next time you read a book or short story featuring a lesbian relationship, just remember that Odd Girl Out was the little pulp novel that made it all possible.
Saturday, August 11, 2012
For Egon Loeser, life would be perfect if only he could have sex with the girl of his dreams, Ms. Adele Hitler. But Loeser lives in Berlin in the 1930s, and the social scene just isn't what it used to be. Nowadays, everyone is preoccupied with Nazis and global politics, but all Loeser wants to do is enjoy himself, preferable with Adele and few lines of coke. But Adele is hardly interested in a self-indulgent, cynical misanthrope like Egon Loeser (it's no coincidence that his name is one letter away from "loser"), so she doesn't even send her admirer so much as a goodbye postcard when she moves to Paris. But for Loeser, Adele is one of only two sources of momentum in his life, so he follows his heart to Paris in search of his dream girl, which is where a whole other series of adventures begins for our reluctant hero.
The second source of momentum in Loeser's life is a legend - well, maybe it's a legend. Maybe the story is true. To Loeser, the infamous legend of Lavicini's teleportation machine is anything but. In fact, Loeser is just as determined to solve the mystery of Lavicini's legacy as he is to find Adele. And when the two intersect, things take a sharp and entertaining turn toward absurdity. Written as part science fiction, part mystery, part historical fiction, and part comedy, The Teleportation Accident follows Loeser as he embarks on a lifelong journey of adventure, farce, and mishaps in search of good sex and teleportation.
Ned Beauman's Man Booker Prize nominated novel is unlike anything I've ever encountered. It's like a crazy Mary Poppins grab bag of discussion points and plot devices. One minute you're reading about Loeser's opinion of artists and writers such as Dada, Brecht, and Hemingway, and the next moment you're following him up and down the streets of Hollywood in search of the perfect "American hamburger sandwich." But it's also a novel about war, politics, Hollywood, theatre, film, religion, communism, travel, sex, paranoia, and public transportation (among other things). By all counts, The Teleportation Accident should be pure chaos, but somehow everything comes together in the end. Well, I guess I should say "ends," considering that the book contains four alternate/simultaneous/interchangeable endings. I know. It sounds crazy and disordered, but as they say, there is order in chaos. Or else Ned Beauman has us all happily fooled!
The Teleportation Accident is fresh, funny, and smart. The prose is witty, the storyline is absurd but fitting, and the historical aspects are well-researched and flavorful. And, it's possibly the most hilariously quotable books of the year. Here are a few of my favorite "Loeserisms" :
- "There was no flat surface near by so they just sniffed the coke off the sides of their hands and then licked up the residue. One of the great skills of Berlin social life was to make this awkward self-nuzzling into an elegant gesture; Loeser knew he resembled a schoolboy trying to teach himself cunnilingus." (p. 26)
- "To be that nice all the time, thought Loeser, just didn't make sense. It was inhuman, illogical, saccahrine, and cowardly. You couldn't truly love anything if you didn't hate at least something. Indeed, perhaps you couldn't truly love anything if you didn't hate almost everything." (p.29)
- "Loeser's parents had died in a car crash, and ever since he had hated cars. He had never learned to drive, and he refused even to be a passenger in a private vehicle. Taxis were all right because a taxi was essentially a very specific bus. And trains were relaxing. But trams were best." (p. 61)
- "He had always hated that period towards the end of a meal when long gaps opened up between utterances: there was something repulsive and undignified about that shared awareness of the human animal's basic inability to think and digest at the same time." (p. 143)
This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 8/11/12
Thursday, August 9, 2012
It's 1955, and Vivian Lawson is a childless divorcee living in a June Cleaver world. After her husband leaves her for another woman, Vivian cannot possibly imagine how she will manage to get back on her feet. After all, she never had much formal education, her cooking is pretty bad, and she lacks any semblance of self-confidence. Luckily, she has a very devoted friend, Babs, who is happy to feed, clothe, and shelter poor Vivian for the time being. Babs lives with her brother, Stew, who has developed a big ole crush on Vivian, so he is more than willing to share the tiny space with her as well.
Through Babs, Vivian is introduced to the world of Tupperware, and is soon recruited as a full-time Tupperware Lady. At first, though, being a saleswoman is overwhelming and intimidating. She has to plan Tupperware parties, sell the product door-to-door, and exude a certain Tupperware image. But Vivian soon finds out that, not only is she funny and entertaining, she can confidently and successfully sell the cutting-edge culinary products and support herself financially without a husband.
Leftovers is a heartwarming story, and a comedic portrayal of domestic life in the 1950s, but it's just a little too heartwarming for my taste. Seemingly overnight, Vivian transforms from a suicidal, helpless little ex-housewife into a sparkling, confident national icon. She is THE Tupperware Lady, and of course, all her dreams come true. I really appreciate the idea behind Wooten's book - to showcase how the plastics industry changed the lives of women all over America through their products and sales opportunities. If women could support themselves financially, they could escape domestic slavery. And products like Tupperware allowed them to do so. But Vivian's story is just a bit over the top for me, and sometimes, she's just gratuitously ditzy.
Oh and as if things don't turn out perfect enough for Ms. Lawson, (spoiler!) her husband does indeed come crawling back to his little caterpillar who has transformed into a beautiful (and wealthy) butterfly. No of course she doesn't take him back! She is a refined Tupperware lady now, but it's nice to know he realized his mistake isn't it? Ugh...the whole plot gave me cavities! If you want a super light, fluffy, fairy-tale of a story, Leftovers will satisfy your craving. After all, the plot is fast-paced and the happy ending is painfully predictable, but if you were hoping for a real feminist perspective on domestic life in the 1950s, this book might feel a little underwhelming and (ahem) stale. Wooten's story is like an empty Tupperware container - a good framework, but no substance. Ok. I'm finished with the plastic puns now!
Monday, August 6, 2012
In 1914, Grace Winter is happier than she ever dreamed. She has just married Henry, the love of her life, and the two are honeymooning on an Atlantic cruise. But halfway through the voyage, something goes terribly wrong, and the ship mysteriously catches fire. With the massive ocean liner sinking quickly, Grace and Henry are separated in the mass panic and confusion, and Grace finds herself on a lifeboat with 38 other confused and terrified passengers. But one of the survivors, John Hardie, has a great deal of experience as a seaman and quickly emerges as the leader of the pack.
At first, Hardie and the other passengers are optimistic about their chances of rescue and survival, but as the hours stretch to days and then weeks, their prospects turn grim. With little food, fresh water, or shelter, the lifeboat's passengers slowly slip into a frantic mental state. Running solely on survival instincts, Grace, Hardie, and some of the other passengers face the horrifying conclusion that only the strong and courageous will survive, and others must be sacrificed. And when the ordeal is over at last, Grace and 2 other survivors are charged with murder and must relay their harrowing story to a jury that cannot possibly begin to comprehend the extremity of their circumstances.
Charlotte Rogan's The Lifeboat is a a chilling journey into the depths of human instinct, will power, and self-preservation. But the novel doesn't just explore aspects of choice and consequences - it asks readers to reconsider their own moral compass in a situation where basic needs and survival instincts surpass morality, rationality, and human compassion. And in between these sinister notions, Rogan also considers women's rights, social status, memory, and the legal dilemmas of such a scenario. The Lifeboat is a fast-paced, engrossing, and thought-provoking debut, but I wouldn't recommend it for beach reading.
Saturday, August 4, 2012
Sam Thompson's Communion Town isn't really a novel, but "a city in ten chapters." Citizens of Thompson's fictional city experience a variety of pleasures and pains - but honestly, it's mostly pain. Much of the book reads like a crime noir novel - the city is full of mysterious, beautiful women, private investigators, butchers, murderers, and men who refer to women as "dames." The idea behind Communion Town is to portray a variety of experiences and perspectives in the same setting - to show the extremes of how different people experience an urban area. But after finishing the book, I feel like the audience is only shown one aspect of the city - the awful, miserable, evil side. Very few characters in Thompson's book are happy to be a part of Communion Town, which I don't think is a realistic portrayal of any city. I mean, Hubert Selby, Jr's New York is very different from Candace Bushnell's new York, so I was expecting a much more stark juxtaposition of emotions and happenings. Communion Town just felt too limited in its perspective.
That being said, much of the book is very creative and well-written. I especially enjoyed "The Good Slaughter" and "The Significant City of Lazarus Glass," which explored aspects of violence, memory, and perceptions. They were dark, gritty, noir chapters, and that's where Thompson's writing felt most comfortable and natural. But the writing falls short in the continuity of the book, meaning that there really isn't any. That's why I was surprised that Communion Town was even nominated for the Man Booker Prize. I was under the impression that only full-length novels would be eligible, and I would not consider this book to be a novel.
Now you're probably thinking about the 2011 controversy over Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad, which was hotly debated over. Some critics said yes, it is a novel, and others said it more closely resembles short stories. Well, A Visit From the Goon Squad is an epic novel compared to Communion Town. Just to be clear, I did not dislike Communion Town, I just don't think it meets all the criteria to be awarded the Man Booker Prize.
This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 8/4/12
Wednesday, August 1, 2012
What would you do if you woke up one day to find that you are completely invisible? Would you be afraid? Angry? Or maybe secretly thrilled? In Jeanne Ray's new book, Calling Invisible Women, this is exactly what happens to Clover, a 50-something woman who wears many hats, including that of a journalist, mother, wife, and friend. Clover's situation is confusing and utterly terrifying, but even more bewildering is the fact that no one in her family has noticed. When she wears clothing, the shape and outline of her body is visible, but her flesh has disappeared into thin air.
Clover soon realizes that she's not the only woman in the world struggling with this condition - hundreds, if not thousands of other women have become invisible, and the cause is traced to a combination of pharmaceutical drugs that, when taken together, may cause certain women to completely disappear. But nobody seems to notice or even care that these middle aged women have been physically reduced to nothing but voices, scents, and a floating torso (when they choose to wear clothing, that is). And as long as the fridge is full, the errands are complete, and dinner is on the table, even Clover's family is unaware of her condition.
But Clover is a bit more optimistic about this predicament than some of the other invisible women. When she's naked, her presence is completely undetectable, so she takes the opportunity to approach life from a new perspective. As Clover says, "Now I can see how many things you can do when no one is watching. It's a huge freedom when you think about it." As she soon finds out, being invisible is sometimes inconvenient, but it's also a super power! As Clover adjusts to her condition, she takes a bold approach to invisibility and inspires a national chain of events.
Calling Invisible Women reads like a sci-fi superhero comedy. It's weird, hilarious, and completely entertaining, but it's also a bold commentary on the social status of middle-aged women. In a society that values youth and beauty to the point of obsession, what does that do for a woman's self-worth as she ages? As Jeanne Ray points out, women of a certain age are devalued to a point of invisibility. They are marginalized as mothers and wives and completely stripped of their sexuality. Unfortunately, it's going to take a national movement for all women to regain their visibility in our world, but with Clover and the other invisible women of Ray's novel, we are reminded that our voices are more powerful than our physical bodies.
Monday, July 30, 2012
In the spring of 1950, Coral Glynn takes a job in the English countryside as a live-in nurse for Mrs. Edith Hart, an elderly woman dying of cancer. Life at Hart House is quiet, isolated, and uneventful, so Coral is surprised to find companionship with Mrs. Hart's son, Clement. Clement was injured during the war and has turned into somewhat of a recluse since then. Except for a few local friends, Clement's only social interactions consist of his polite, but awkward conversations with Coral. When Mrs. Hart dies, Coral prepares to leave Hart House, but is stunned when Clement proposes marriage. She has very few friends and no family, so she reluctantly accepts - but the prospect of new beginnings is darkened when Coral is identified as a suspect in a local crime. Her quiet, simple life is abruptly shattered by a series of miscommunications, and the bizarre subsequent events send Coral on a strange journey of memory, discovery, and self-preservation.
Coral Glynn is a very odd little book. At just over 200 pages, the novel is short, but the changes among the few characters is drastic - especially for Coral. Combining aspect of gothic romance, tragedy, and dark humor, Peter Cameron's novel is unpredictable, but very compelling.
More than anything, Coral Glynn is about the consequences of social red tape, decorum, and miscommunication - specifically for women of this era. Coral's life has been shaped by a series of traumas, and she is ill-equipped to handle the startling events surrounding Hart House. With a lack of self-confidence and very little sense of security, Coral is easily persuaded and bombarded by conflicting advice. Cameron's prose is succinct and the characters are sightly underdeveloped, but the book still manages to be curiously magnetic, and Coral never ceases to be a fascinating, mystifying character.