Monday, August 25, 2014

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I have been an irregular reader of late. Time seems steadily to slip out of my grasp. Few books hold my attention lately: Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis, which I read in two feverish sittings, tops the list right now. 

Like its gorgeous cover, the book is random pages torn out and stuck together, a collage of a life or two. It is not a novel in the strictest sense. It is a series of incidents fit together in loose chronology.

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis is set in Greenwich Village in the 1970s. Rainey Royal lives with her father, jazz musician Howard Royal and his cult of acolytes, groupies and aspiring musicians. Her mother has left the family to live in an ashram, and under her father's neglect, Rainey fends off advances from his best friend Gordy. She stumbles through life trying to nurture her creative drive, praying to Saint Cath - the patron of temptation, staying barely out of trouble, along with her friends Tina Dial, who secretly loves Howard, and Leah and string of young and old men.

To the world, Rainey Royal is a manipulative bully, a rebel, a criminal even; admirably disturbing, selfish. She's greedy, talented, cruel, ruthless, moody, secretive. She is not likable. But with her art, Rainey is, in every sense of the word, "royal." She can sew memories into people. And as she grows up, Rainey learns to use her art to find a place in the world, getting commissions for making tapestries of dead relatives and lovers. But throughout the book, Rainey's reluctance to vulnerability, her inability to trust herself, her inexperience with love and care - the shadow of her past - hang over her head like a knife ready to sl iceher the moment she lets go of the anger keeping her upright. Rainey Royal is a masterfully crafted character, one you can't bring yourself to care for. She stands somewhere between protagonist and villain, between good and bad and beyond grey.

Like Rainey Royal, the book is beautiful but it's not likable, it's full of emotions but it doesn't touch you, it's passionate but not lively. The tone is pessimistic, there is no solution and no real ending. I did not end up feeling a rush of affection towards Rainey or Tina, I did not wish them well, the story showed me nothing but the unfairness of life and innateness of art, and I left the book convinced that the 1970s of the story might as well have been today.

I don't know if I like this book. Parts of it drip with melancholy beauty and parts make me gag. Sometimes it seems silly and overdone, other times grotesquely profound. Surely, you will like a book which captures how it feels to have that one skill, talent, calling, that makes all the problems of your life whoosh away; but what if its characters make you mad and miserable? Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis is such a book, memorable but I don't know if I can call it good. It's short, so you can read it and decide for yourself. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Magic of Historical Fiction

(There may be many other reasons to love historical fiction, and seeing how it’s so incredibly popular, there must be. I've touched upon a few, so tell me if you agree or have anything to add!)
Image courtesy of Simon Howden at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It took a lot of restraint for me to only pick one Literature course at the university. The first class went on and on about historical fiction and its appeal, in the context of Shakespeare's plays. It's a topic I happen to have been wondering about for a long time now. It's been maybe a year since my obsession with fantasy gravitated completely onto historical fiction.

For the past three months, I have been obsessed (and that is still an understatement) with the Iliad, in its original form and as a retelling and reimagining. I suppose that we cannot call the Iliad strictly history; to have Pallas Athena actively and literally intervening on the side of the Greeks is naturally impossible. But that's the thing about history. None of us (ordinary people) really know what happened, and it is this guesswork and mulling over the true truths and made-up truths that adds its foremost magic to historical fiction.

We all want a taste of the past. I certainly do. Looking through old family photos and imagining the lives of all the generations before is my favourite pastime. I love trinkets - the seashells that my father and I found at the beach, my mother's wedding jewellery, an old greeting card - everything is made up of memories and because memories are rare and easily lost, they are important. A book retelling history makes rare memories accessible. A good historical novel lets you remember a past you never lived and that's a charm that no other fiction possesses.

History, as most of us learn it, is dull. History from museums is fact. History from novels is life. While historical fiction may not mention every political action taken by great leader, it’ll mention his favourite colour. Historical fiction turns boring details into colourful stories. It makes you realize that remembering dates and the names of a myriad treaties is good, but accuracy and origins (as my Shakespeare professor said) are immaterial when placed next to the emotions attached to and invoked by history: these are feelings that we rarely find in an information-oriented classroom setting, feelings too undefined to be taught but worth experiencing. Historical fiction will make you love the past and quite possibly, thank God you live in the present.

In the past, or at least the distant past, life had an altogether different meaning. An incomprehensible simplicity and an unlikely danger. For all the aforementioned sluggishness of text-book history, the past was difficult and exciting! Look at all its pop culture representations if you doubt me, Achilles and Henry VIII and Spartacus. That's the obvious reason to love historical fiction!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Wenlock Edge by Alice Munro

Wenlock Edge by Alice Munro is a story from the collection Too Much Happiness. This is one of those stories by Munro that you can read in the New Yorker (although the book version is slightly modified and more impactful, so do try to get your hands on the book.) I've been tackling the book fairly slowly, which is a nice idea considering the layered complexity of Munro's stories. The only story from the book I've blogged about before is Fiction, which I read over three months ago.

Wenlock Edge followed a college student, living as a tenant in the attic of an old house, and her new roommate, Nina, a young girl with a terrible past. A series of unfortunate affairs, Nina told the narrator, had led to her making an arrangement with a certain Mr. Purvis. The old gentleman had arranged for Nina to attend college like any other girl on the weekdays and the spend the weekends with him. Nina seemed sincerely grateful to the man, until the narrator noticed that she rarely wrote in her college notebooks and had a black car tailing her at all times. One weekend when Nina was supposed to visit Mr. Purvis, she fell ill and instead, convinced the narrator to accompany him for dinner. That night, at Mr. Purvis's modern house, the narrator discovered the ugly truth of Nina's arrangement.

Somewhere in the story, somewhere in his house, Mr. Purvis made the narrator read to him the poem On Wenlock Edge by A. E. Houseman.

On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble;
      His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
      And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

'Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
      When Uricon the city stood:
'Tis the old wind in the old anger,
      But then it threshed another wood.

Then, 'twas before my time, the Roman
      At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
      The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
      Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
      Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
      It blows so hard, 'twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
      Are ashes under Uricon.

At first read, the poem didn't make any sense to me, then this analysis, which explained all the vocabulary, helped. A reread made it clearer. The poet says all actions and all feelings are the same and they're all mortal in the end, just as we are. In the context of the story, On Wenlock Edge affected the narrator, it touched the victim in her when Mr. Purvis made her read to him and it haunted her into revenge.

Had he known? Had he known that I would never think of those lines again without feeling the prickle of the upholstery on my bare haunches? The sticky prickly shame. A far greater shame it seemed now than at the time. He had got me, in spite of myself.
I would always be reminded of what I had done. What I had agreed to do. Not been forced, not ordered, not even persuaded. Agreed to do. 
Nina would know. She would be laughing about it. Not cruelly, but just the way she laughed at so many things. She would always remind me.

Wenlock Edge by Alice Munro was atmospheric, melancholy. It was intriguing and engrossing. The subtlety of writing, the gentle choice of words somehow enhanced the obscenity of Mr. Purvis's actions, the emotional abuse. The story showed us two victims, one blaming herself and desperate to shift the blame onto another, the other turned painfully nonchalant and ruthless by her suffering. It showed us how we'll never know what we're capable of, how we can not only surprise but often horrify ourselves, and how we can never really know someone, no matter how well we think we do. The cruelty of the story was not altogether unusual and that's what made it most effective.

I love Munro's writing, how it makes me really dig deep, every line, every word is significant. The flitting timelines make for a punchline which you might not understand at once and which, when you do, will leave you speechless. What makes this whole book most attractive to me is the apparent ease with which Munro constructs her stories; she sews together seeming inconsequentialities into a vast canvas and the big picture thrills and stuns you.

Do you have any Alice Munro favourites you would recommend? And what do you make of this story? I've spent some time dissecting it and would love your thoughts on the poem!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Negative Reviews, Stickers and Other Pet Peeves

Moving to a new city, leaving th comfeort of my home, looking forward (not) to two years of university life made me dig up this old draft about things that make me uncomfortable: my bookish pet peeves. I suppose two years will turn me into a very accommodating person, I can only hope, but you have to admit, finicky obsessions do have their personal touch.

Review / Blogging:

Negative Reviews: Of course, there are whole big complicated annoying discussions about this one. But my problem is not whether negative reviews are morally right or wrong, but simply this: do bad reviews really affect your decision to buy? Ever since I started writing this blog, I have discovered many great authors through rave reviews of their books. Five-star reviews and unending praise do play a part in convincing me to pick up a book. Negative reviews, unless I've already read the book, are kind of pointless. I've never decided to not buy a book because someone thinks it SUCKS -  It's just someone venting their frustration: too subjective. 

Stock Reviews: I suppose I went through this phase too, where all my reviews read the same; the plot is fast-paced/action-packed/slow/meandering. The characters are realistic/fake/blah blah. Reviews that make no real expansion on what the book is reminiscent of, what it makes you feel, the theme, the point of the book are kind of pointless anyway. Pointless overly-commercialized posting is a big problem in the world of blogging, I think.

Book - Appearance:

Book Stickers: I hate stickers on books. They ruin the prettiest cover pictures. The offer stickers (50% off, 3 for 2) are generally easy to remove, but you can't say the same for price or "Oprah's Book Club Read" stickers. When I bought the latest addition to my Rowling collection, I made sure to meticulously and almost fully scratch off the sloppily unimaginative sticker on The Cuckoo's Calling. For those of you who share this pet peeve, but would rather not attack books with your fingernails, the How to Remove Stickers from your Books tutorial is very helpful.

Edge gilding or colouring: This is a new peeve. I have a mystery novel with red coloured edges and my old library had a Philip Pullman book with black edges. Both look preposterous in my opinion. Colouring the edges of books is such a needless waste of... well, colour and money I guess, and I do believe page edges browned and yellowed with colour have a certain finesse that you lose when you colour them artifically, even if with gold leaf.

Book - Content

Slabs of writing with no spaces - Okay, so I understood and appreciated the creative need for this in Jose Saramago's Blindness; the effect the writing had of wading through darkness like a blind person. But then I started reading another of his books that had little to do with losing your sight and it was just the same. I left that book. Reading shouldn't be an effort, should it? What's the fun in that.

That's enough complaining for today, I'd say. Although, this post has given me the idea of posting about things I love to see in books, a much happier post, don't you think? But till then, what don't you like to see in books?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

I received this book in exchange for an honest review through Blogging for Books.

Summary: Madeleine Altimari's mother is dead, and the world is a tough place for the brash nine-year-old kid, who is an aspiring jazz singer. Bravely facing down mean-spirited classmates and rejection at school, Madeleine doggedly searches for Philadelphia's legendary jazz club The Cat's Pajamas, where she's determined to make her on-stage debut. On the same day, her fifth grade teacher Sarina Greene, who's just moved back to Philly after a divorce, is nervously looking forward to a dinner party that will reunite her with an old high school crush, Ben Allen, afraid to hope that sparks might fly again. And across town at The Cat's Pajamas, club owner Lorca discovers that his beloved haunt may have to close forever.

My thoughts: Philadelphia, if I'd known the setting of the novel, lived there and recognized the street names, and the mood, this book would have been something else. It's is a very atmospheric read, and Bertino knows just how to tickle your senses with her words. The book begins with a snowfall:

Snow flurries fall in the city. Actors walking home from a cast party on Broad Street try to catch them on their tongues. The ingenue lands a flake on her hot cheek and erupts into a fit of laughter. In Fishtown a nightmare trembles through the nose and paws of a dog snoozing under construction flats. The Rittenhouse Square fountain switches to life with a pronouncement of water while Curtis Hall musicians, late for final rehearsal, arpeggiate through the park. 
The flurries somersault, reconsider, double back. The alleys of 9th Street bear witness as they softly change their minds.

2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino is just what the title promises, a novel made up of cozy warmth and chirpy, quirky characters. It's a light read, the kind of book you'd finish in a day and savour through the next, a perfect travel companion. Even its corniness has a charm.

The last time Gus sees Alessandra is through the elbows and arms of her brothers and sisters who force themselves in between them. 
That's a drummer's love story. If you want a prettier one, you'll be waiting forever. If you could separate your body into four distinct rhythms, you'll be cracked too.

But under all its wry quirkiness, the book has a poignant message. Each character is a real person, with their faults and failings. Madeleine is a jerk, a smarth-mouthed, prank-pulling, arrogant jerk, who'd have had her own gang in school had she not hated to be around other kids so much. Sarina Greene is awkward, obsessive and paranoid, plagued with little concerns and self-doubts. Jack Lorca is about to lose his jazz club, his girlfriend and has not only lost but never managed to make any connection with his son. Three lives, and more, converge at 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas and you realize that the story is about bad things happening to bad people, and bad people trying to be good. It's about people who've made mistakes, people who haven't been their best trying to improve, to make good on promises. Because, even jerks have mothers who die. 

Cat's pajamas - that's what brings these odd protagonists together, literally and otherwise. Google helped me out right when I got the book, cat's pajamas refers to a great new thing or more specifically here - and please correct me if I'm wrong - a person who is the best at what he does. Madeleine is an amazing singer, the nine year old Blossom Dearie fan is self-taught and inspired by her dancer mother and practices with a diligence that we're unlikely to associate with spoilt brat who sneaks her mother's smokes. Sarina Greene for all her idiotic clumsiness really cares about her students, is passionate and has suffered enough losses in her life to be wary of appreciation. Jack Lorca has practically given up on his club, his girlfriend and his son, and it makes him miserable. It's the last night of his career, The Cat's Pajamas will be shut down if it stays open after 2. A.M. Nostalgia, melancholy and love - the author knows how to express each.

His father is already dead by the time Lorca reaches him, beer unspooling around him, eyes fixed on some fascination under the bar. Lorca gathers him in his arms.
Gathers him in his name - Jack Francis Lorca.
We carry our ancestors in our names and sometimes we carry our ancestors through the sliding doors of emergency rooms and either way they are heavy, either way we can't escape.

Not wholly ironically, I did find faults in the book. The meandering story, the present tense narration and the flitting points of view are not for everybody. The book could have done without a few characters and the stories within stories, though endearing, give it the aura of a short story collection. The cover title "2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas, a novel" suddenly seems to be trying to prove a point. 

I love magic realism when it works, but this abruptly fantastical ending just isn't one of those times. Its incongruity only makes me a tougher judge of the rest of the book. The end is not the place to experimental with a new style. The last impression, if unfairly, matters most. And mine is more of an "Eh!" than I wanted.

You can pre-order this book here

Friday, July 25, 2014

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

I received this book in exchange for an honest review through Blogging For Books.

Summary: In a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night and then set fire to her home. When their lifelong neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded. 
For Sonja, still haunted by the disappearance of her sister Natasha, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate.

My thoughts: Marra's story is driven by the setting and the characters. The story plays out in five days, but also spans the decade of the Chechen Wars, the flitting timelines circle the string of coincidences that bring Sonja, Akhmed and Havaa together. It is a walk through war and peace and brittle Chechnya itself becomes a central figure. The book uses language to add character, Chechen of course, Russian which sets Sonja and Natasha apart, Arabic which Havaa fumbles with and the English of London, where Sonja leaves her fiance to search for her sister; words of love, madness and the silent language of a man's hatred for his son. The dialogue is masterful and achieves what vivid descriptions don't always, creating both a tie and a sinking distance between you and the people of the story who seem all the more real in the detail. 

Eight year old Havaa has never seen a fat person; Natasha doesn't ask a dying man his name for fear that he will die and she will be left with just a name; when Ramzan, the informer, feels like a criminal, he reminds himself that a land without law is a land without crime; when the Feds torture the prisoners, it is understood that pain, rather than information is the true purpose of the interrogation; Khassan burns his life's worth of writing, his only book, because he wants to be forgotten.

How often does a novel make you feel that its fictional characters must be thankful to the author for telling their story? How often do you find a novel that has no judgment, where the author has carefully extricated himself from the book and has let the characters monopolize your mind? Ever read a book that shows you a man teaching his six year old daughter how to use a gun on one page and on the next, makes you laugh at a man who knows no world beyond his village and thinks Ronald McDonald is the president of America? How often has a novel made you feel insignificant, shown you the worst of times and the spark of hope in them? How often does a book make you feel, with its unabashed honesty, like a voyeur? Like you're prying on things too difficult and courageous, too complicated for you with your simple past to comprehend?

Rarely, that's the answer. You rarely find a book that achieves all of that. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra is a really good book. It makes you grateful to be in your world, and will make you stronger in the face of your problems. But as every really good book must, it feels more genuine than the real reality you're in and despite all its horrors, you'll find yourself dragging your feet when it tries to send you back. 

Favourite quotes: 

(Havaa and Akhmed eat their first meal, a hunk of dry black bread, after Havaa's father's abduction)

She ate quickly. Hunger was a sensation so long situated in his abdomen he felt it as he would an inflamed organ. He took his time, tonguing the pulp into a little oval and resting it against his cheek like a lozenge. If the bread wouldn't fill his stomach, it might at least fill his mouth. The girl had finished half of hers before he took a second bite.
"You shouldn't rush'" he said. "There are no taste buds in your stomach." 
She paused to consider his reasoning, then took another bite. "There’s no hunger in your tongue," she mumbled between chews. Her cupped hand caught the crumbs and tossed them back in her mouth.

(Sonja, making a doctor out of Akhmed, the gentle artist.)

She needed another set of hands, no matter how fumbling and uncertain they might be. Not that she'd admit it to him. She had to harden him, teach him that saving a life and nurturing a life are different processes, and to succeed in the former one must dispense with the pathos of the latter. 

(Khassan and his fleeting affair with the love of his life, Mirza)

She praised his book and he embraced her from gratitude rather than lust, but she didn't let go. Neither did he. She kissed his cheek, his earlobe. For months they'd run their fingers around the hem of their affection without once acknowledging the fabric. The circumference of the world tightened to what their arms encompassed. She sat on the desk, between the columns of read and unread manuscript, and pulled him toward her by his index fingers.

I agree with the Washington Post review of the book, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra "is a flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles."

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Why I end up liking everything J.K. Rowling writes

A few days ago I came across a bookstore, fed my incessant book greed and bought these two. Then I spent a day wondering whom I'd rather start with from my two favourite writers. 
I couldn't decide which to read first, but I went with J.K.
When I read The Casual Vacancy, I commented that we could never really know an author and their works aren't everything there is to say about them. No Harry Potter book could have made me think that was coming, and I enjoyed that new way of looking at an author I was so convinced I knew

The Silkworm has made me realize something about J.K. Rowling and my intense love for all her writing - no, I'm not a Harry Potter fan claiming I like everything she writes just because. It's how involved she is in all her works. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is probably not a story to her, but a whole world happening inside her head, into which she allows us selective peeks. That would explain the gossipy Rita Skeeter article about the Quidditch World Cup I was told she published recently. The criticism goes: it was too short a glimpse through too unreliable a narrator. I would like to believe Rowling didn't sit down to write the story for the occasion but that the occasion wrote itself - which is to say that everything that takes place from the fight at Hogwarts to the seventeen years later (and after that) does actually play out in her head, and she chooses when to let us in. I mean, I doubt all the Pottermore stories were created just for the website.

In much the same way, the world of Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling and The Silkworm, the life of ex-Army detective Cormoran Strike, is a story inside her head. As must be the life and work of Robert Galbraith. Rethinking over it now, I don't think the pseudonym was a gimmick - I think a woman who has so many stories playing in her mind, such a vivid imagination, must have loved to write as another person, a man in fact, and enjoyed putting herself in the shoes of a first timer writing their debut book. 

And that's how I end up loving everything Rowling: be it the Harry Potter series, The Casual Vacancy or these newest mysteries, for all our expectations and suggestions - she should have stuck to Harry Potter, it is too gross, dark and full of "language", I wanted it to be magical, what was she thinking? - I don't believe she writes for us, she writes because she loves stories. And it is evident in the detail and the effortless switches of genre (though no self-respecting Harry Potter fan would say the books were just that: fantasy.)