Thursday, September 27, 2007

"American Born Chinese" - Gene Luen Yang

Yes, some people didn't grow up ashamed of something - their family, their family's religion, ethnicity, finances, reputation or simple uncoolness. I wonder how they end up building their personalities...must be that well-adjusted frame of mind we hear so much about...

Striving to be like everybody else is every one's childhood dirty little secret - and with adolescence this path usually takes us right down to arrogance and meanness, just like Yang's characters.

A graphic novel that like (or rather, more) than Tintim can be enjoyed by anyone from 7 to 77 years old, and arguably more important, since it portrays a moral lesson we are mostly keen to forget.

The ethics of "American Born Chinese" rang very close to my own, so it was no surprise to find Yang is a catholic. I'm of the lapsed type myself, but hey, dogma dies hard. Still, I believe anyone can enjoy this - we just feel more guilty.

Most of us regain our senses somewhere along the line and develop a sense of pride about our unique background, but Yang's book is remarkable in that it takes the reader so vividly back to those playground/high school days when we just wanted to be like the other blond, blue-eyed, thin and pretty kids.

The only thing that made me sad was realizing this story is happening to some kid right this instant...
Why can't we inject the little monkeys with some age-old wisdom?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"A Year In Japan" - Kate T. Williamson

A great deal of the attraction about Japan for westerners, is the visual side of the culture, the attention to detail and social emphasis on beauty and balance.

Kate T. Williamson's book of watercolors and carefully thought out commentaries on seasonal and cultural events is the perfect antidote for those of us who will have to wait a couple more years before travelling to the land of the rising sun.

Other books I've read with a Japanese theme:

"Hokkaido Highway Blues" - William Ferguson
My favourite of these by far. On undertaking a hitchhiking odyssey across Japan, Ferguson unravels many a curious lore.

"Kimono - Fashioning Culture" - Liza Dalby
A bit too detailed unless you want to know absolutely everything about this traditional costume.

"Memoirs Of A Geisha" - Arthur Golden
I really, really loved this book (must have been nine years ago) but the movie really ruined it for me. Well, it didn't ruin the book, but the idea of it, if you know what I mean.

"Geisha Of Gion - The Memoir of Mineko Iwasaki"
I don't remember too much about this one, but I seem to recall enjoying it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

"Safekeeping - Some true stories from a life" - Abigail Thomas

"She would (if she could) put her arm around the girl she'd been and try to tell her, Take it easy, but the girl had no receptors for Take it easy."

Like the small skipping stones her father had kept - and that she unwrapped only years after his death - Abigail Thomas gives the reader these smooth, heavy and understated vignettes of her life.

Her tone is motherly, like a warm winter blanket as she shares what has been an incredibly full emotional life.

By 26 she had three small children and no job. She made do in a small apartment until husband number two, almost twenty years her senior, came along. The relationship was uncomfortable on both ends, but left Thomas with a forth child and a slowly blossoming friendship cut short by death.

Death is everywhere in "Safekeeping". Parents, loved ones. There is also loneliness and anxiety. Yet it is the poetry of Thomas' writing that lingers after the book is closed.

On chocolate liquor:
"It wasn't liquor. It was candy with attitude"

"They had a big window installed in the kitchen that looked into the woods. In the fall afternoons she used to watch them empty of their light like a glass of bourbon being filled to the brim."

More melancholic than "Three Dog Life", "Safekeeping" feels like one those jagged moments in life when we are forced to stop and take stock. Some much is taken away in what seems an unjust manner, and then, amazing gifts are bestowed when we least expect them. The only protection against dark times, Thomas seems to suggest, is memory. However unreliable it may be, it is our only thread of understanding, the only shot at making sense, the only wisdom we can leave behind.

"It was a party in what was to become Soho, lots of drinking, lots of smoke, and somebody said something I didn't catch, and another man replied, one hand on the back of his own head, the other holding a cigarette, both men wearing togas as I recall, "Oh honey, any sense of security is a false sense of security". Everybody laughed, but I didn't get it. What was so funny?
Now I get it."

Thursday, September 20, 2007

"Worker's Write!"

These short stories are published by Blue Cubicle Press and each has a theme. I read the first three (Tales From The Clinic will be released shortly): Tales From The Cubicle/ Classroom / Cash Register.

The one I enjoyed the least was Tales From The Cubicle, but don't blame the authors. I too was a cubicle slave for more years than I care to remember (okay, only four but it felt like a lifetime), and most of the stories brought back the anxiety and the meaninglessness of it all. Which is a great credit to the authors.

In Charles Conley's "Cubicles From This Angle" the sentence "Coffee rooms designed even more ingeniously than the cube unit, if you can believe it, for the simple reason that they imply ease, relaxation, a moment to yourself, but in fact suppress repose and banter." felt like an epiphany. I can't say how many times I cut my own fifteen minute breaks short because of a vague feeling of discomfort I couldn't quite place, and went back to my station early. Of course the company wouldn't want you to enjoy you free time and like an idiot I never realized this was a planned thing.

My favorite was "Cubed" by B. A. Goodjohn, not incidentally because her main character makes a run for it in the end of the story.

I was also a substitute teacher for half a school year but, while it was enough time to understand I would probably not enjoy it full-time (as I always said, mother), I didn't stay long enough to become bitter. Maybe that's why I enjoyed "Classroom" more: I experienced just a tiny bit of the hardship of teaching and cannot help but feel immense admiration for those who pursue it for decades. And I'm not talking about the new teachers who come in bright-eyed, believing they will change everything; I mean the ones who stay even though they understand they can change very little.

Kindergarten, primary school, high school and college. My favorite tales in this volume covered all the educational steps (respectively "Cupid's Chaos" by Helen Price Walters, "Resistance" by Dale-Marie Bryan, "Twenty-Five Pounds" by Christina Cabrera and Kenneth Pobo's "Friday Afternoon"). Bryan, Cabrera and Pobo all address, in various degrees of poignancy the dilemma of the teacher who feels useless in the face of the student's pain and disinterest, Walters' tale was pure, much needed, sweetness.

I tended to like the stories that presented the work in a straightforward manner better, while the more fantastic ones sort of went over my heart.

Finally, "Tales From The Cash Register". I never had that particular experience, so think what you may, but this was my absolute favorite. Working the register might be the more narrative friendly of these occupations or (very likely) I read these tales with rose tinted glasses on. Brian Brown's "Dinner Alone" and Michael Giorgio's "Killer Shift" are the most memorable, but I also loved Diana Eid's, Rose Gowen's and Robin Svedi's. Even Sierra Bellows' "Shift Work", with more of a bittersweet tone to it, felt cosy.

I couldn't help noticing that two short stories in different volumes start with the exact same sentence, maybe the result of a creative writing workshop. Most of the contributing writers are still struggling to make the pen their primary means of financial support, and just for keeping at it they deserve support. But regardless of that fact, there are many great tales here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

"Town House" - Tish Cohen

Heck, I thought I was going to be sooo smart with my "About A Boy" reference, but a quick google search (Town House movie) proved I'm way behind. The big screen adaptation of Tish Cohen's "Town House" is already in the works, and it's been dubbed "About A Girl" so obvious are the similarities with the film starring Hugh Grant (itself based on a book by Nick Hornby).

When you already know the book you are reading is being turned into a movie, there is no way you are reading it the same way: you're wondering about who will play which role, how close the adaptation will be to the plot, the visual aspect of it all. I couldn't help doing a "Hollywood version" of "Town House" in my mind instead of the "regular" one I do with every book.

But it's silly, isn't it? The only thing that should matter is how much you enjoy the story itself.

I already knew "Town House" was on its way to the screen when I started reading it. But I wasn't prepared for being reminded constantly of films while I read it - "About A Boy", "As Good As It Gets" and that awful one where Bruce Willis meets his younger self. It brought back every movie with a anti-social male adult facing a psychological mid-life crisis with the help of a precocious/ adorable child, and a female character that he doesn't quite deserve, but in the end, gets.

Jack Madigan is an agoraphobe, who occupies a Boston Townhouse he inherited from his rock star negligent dad, who passed away when he was an infant. His wife has left him and his son Harlan is 17 and obsessed with "uncool": 70's shag carpets, polyester, Shawn Cassidy, disco balls etc.

His therapist of 15 years has proven, to say the least, unhelpful: Jack can't even retrieve the newspaper without suffering a full-blown panic attack.

It just so happens that the house, Jack's hub of security, is mortgaged and about to be sold, since he hasn't been able to meet the payments. His talent lies in a keen eye for colour, especially the subtleties of white, but being house bound has made his customized paint business nearly defunct.

The two characters that get Jack's recovery in motion are Dorrie Allsopp, a young blond bubbly real-estate agent (Reese Witherspoon or Kate Hudson could get the gig according to Cohen) and a nine year old girl (also blond) who despite having egocentric parents is full of joy and bravery (the author suggests Dakota Fanning's kid sister for the part).

From the start it's pretty obvious that a) Jack will find some last-minute way to save his house; b) that through his affection for both Dorrie and Lucie he will conquer his fear of the outside world.

The only question is, will Cohen make the road that leads to that inevitable end interesting, funny and surprising?
Not so much, would have to be my answer.

Some of the characters, most notably Harlan the son, never get off the ground. Even Dorrie is more of a sketch, and she deserved better. Lucie is life-like but then she is based on Cohen's memories of her own childhood. The house, that should have been a major character, actually suffers from a lack of it.

Every loose end is tied so nicely that I couldn't help but feel disappointed.

You see, what I felt Cohen portrayed very well is the despair of Jack's agoraphobia. I could feel the dizziness and his pounding heart when he left the house, his despair at wanting and failing to be normal. In the end it seems to go away so easily...
I couldn't help but wonder who he was - his phobia was what defined him throughout the entire book and then, he sort of disappears into a happy ending of promised normalcy.

I'm sure the romantic finale will play well on camera, but if it's a good read you're looking for, I'd suggest something different.

Friday, September 14, 2007

"Lapham Rising" - Roger Rosenblatt

For those who enjoy sarcasm, and secretly (or not so secretly) deride the rich and (pseudo) intellectual, especially when the two combine - which, if one were to believe everything we read and hear, is very often indeed, "Lapham" may well be the perfect summer book. Although you could definitely use it this winter as an antidote against the cold.

Henry March is the fortunate proprietor of an old family house, that sits in that most prized piece of real-estate called "The Hamptons". Middle-aged, his children have left, and recently, so has his wife ("the last straw" of the relationship is told in an hilarious chapter, featuring a Hamptons dinner party).

March used to be a writer ages ago, but has since left that particular métier alone - he considers himself a mediocre talent and is adamant not to add anything to his body of work. In fact, March would be content if only the Hamptons were not the most socially active place in the planet, and therefore the worst for a self proclaimed hermit.

But our narrator could deal with that particular problem - what he cannot deal with is the babelic construction going on just opposite his island - a gigantic house of summer (complete with all-inclusive air-conditioning)for Lapham, the heir of a asparagus-tong fortune.

For the reader's benefit, Rosenblatt (who by his own admission, only dreamed up Hector, in the final stages of writing) provides March with a talking buddy - an evangelical west highland white terrier, fully convinced of the benefits of capitalism and a socialite setting.

We follow Henry in his quest to put an end to the "real statement" across the bay, and his hope that it will spark a continent wide guerilla movement against the aesthetical (and other) crimes of the wealthy. To say that it does not go according to plan would be an understatement.

Beneath all the laugh-out loud moments there is also quite a lot of serious stuff here, for those who might bother with that reading: Rosenblatt describes poignantly the working classes of the Hamptons (who, even though I had seen many film representations of the area, I never thought about, and imagined did not exist). Unlike the historical british "help", they don't even enjoy the priviledge of being needed, so expendable to the rich are their existences.

All the injustice Rosenblatt (or March) see, the way everybody wants to be like everyone else and yet "special", are catapulted back to their neighbours in healthy doses of irony and disdain. Some of my favourite lines:

"Several summers ago a homeless was spotted wandering the grounds of the Meadow Club in Southampton. The members did not know what to do with him, so they threw him a party."

About the "once-able writer" Vandersnook
"He had written two good novels long ago, but then he had become himself."

And finally:
Hector - "But isn't a career important?"
March - "Not when it interferes with a life"

Enough said.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Life: the wonderful, the schmaltzy

"Three Dog Life" - Abigail Thomas

"The Good Life" - Jay McInerney

Sometimes (most of the time, for me) it’s more difficult to write about a good book than about a bad one. I’m more articulate in loath than in awe. So, here it goes:

Abigail Thomas’s book is a series of mini chronicles documenting the accident which left her husband without any short-term memory and unable to function autonomously.
One night, walking Harry (the dog the author had insisted on getting), Richard ran after him through oncoming traffic when the leash broke, and was run over.

Instead of widowhood, Thomas was left to confront a different, less discussed purgatory: she had to arrange the daily life and care of a loved one who, though present in body was, if not completely gone, utterly transformed.

That Thomas never blamed Harry the beagle, and adopted two other dogs in the following years, will probably not seem very far-fetched to other dog owners. That she is able to write without a hint of cheap sentiment and yet so vividly portray her ordeal is what truly brought me to tears – once when I read the ending, and a second time, when I told it to my mother.

McInerney’s book is the complete opposite: it reeks of cheap sentiment, schmaltz and soap-operism and the 9/11 back-drop made it even more unbearable. I was surprised at how much I hated it, since I read “Bright Lights, Big City” when I was 11 years old and thoroughly enjoyed it. I guess I grew up in the subsequent 19 years, whereas McInerney is confined to being for ever an increasingly juvenile writer. However, I also enjoyed his anthology of wine chronicles: sure, you could tell he was a pompous, indulgent (and indulged, by his circle of fawning fans), name-dropping idiot, but he was also funny. “The Good Life” started off by giving me a warm feeling inside, as it described the lives of wealthy and wealthier manhatanites – the continuous craving for more goods of superior quality, be they in the shape of real-estate, textiles or celebrity friends and events. I felt smug and superior until the story started going nowhere fast, while the characters failed to develop (until the end of the book I could never memorize their names, so indistinct where they from the supporting characters). These characters can’t take life’s no for an answer – as illustrated by Corrinne’s adamant pursuit of conception (finally achieved via younger sister’s eggs), and Luke’s acquisition of his socialite wife, Sasha. McInerney then tries to convince the reader that these two are transfixed by their chance encounter amid the rubble of a day-old 9/11. Fat chance of anyone believing these self-serving two are capable of a mature love affair – so the author gives a hand by providing them both(!) with philandering partners. One wouldn’t want to face New Yorkers with too much of a moral dilemma, after all. It’s all so damn convenient that Luke’s 14 year old harlot daughter – caught in the oral act by her father one day and overdosing on prescription drugs the next – is really just a sensitive girl who wants to live in rural Tennessee with her paternal grandmother and practice the family business of equine therapy. Turns out she was only engaging in casual sex and recreational drugs because she didn’t want to become a rich bitch like her doped-up mother. Sure, it makes sense…
In the end they decide - as their families brush each other at a Christmas rendition of “The Nut-Cracker” by the NY Ballet (pass the bucket)-, that their love is too pure to be spoiled by the ugliness of divorce and subsequent pain for the involved children. I couldn’t figure out why McInerney chickened out at this final bit of sentimentality – making his leading characters walk off into the sunset – after all, he had already commited the worst of novelistic faults – boring the reader to tears.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

"The Lost - a search for six of six million" Daniel Mendelsohn

There are many reasons to investigate your family’s past: for some it’s about status, proving the wealth and importance of your name; for some grasping in a foggy history a sense of who you are, who you might become; some of us are suckers for a good story, be it a drama or a comedy.

When you’ve grown up amidst whispered rumours regarding part of your family, your curiosity will almost surely be piqued, and the same goes for relatives inhabiting far away lands. However, few of us will have spent our formative years hearing, always in hushed tones, about members of our family who were “killed by the nazis”. The sheer vagueness of the affirmation, makes it even more compelling, more horrid in all the details it leaves to the imagination.

At a time in our adult lives where most of us are starting to face the emotional ghosts in our genealogical trees, Daniel Mendelsohn had already reconstructed his, as far back and wide as possible – a hobby he approached with the extreme seriousness of an academically inclined child. Still, the fate of his maternal great-uncle Shmiel, his wife Ester and their four daughters from 10 to 19 years old approximately, was still a puzzle in his early forties.

In “The Lost” Mendelsohn invites the reader to follow in his footsteps as he unravels the last and most difficult knot of his family’s past.

It is not a straightforward journey, for Mendelsohn has spent his life immersed in Classic Literature, and learned at his grandfather Abraham knee, the value of a good yarn. But the reader will never, in its 500 pages, feel like “The Lost” is taking him for a ride. All the detours that the author apparently leads us on, are nothing other than precious stitches of an amazingly complex embroidery- in the end the pattern doesn’t just make sense –it is truly beautiful.

The Holocaust involved such ungraspable numbers –that it is humanly impossible to think of those six million as individuals – real individuals. We know, of course, that these were real people covering the whole spectrum of economic occupations and emotional temperaments, but still. They can never be truly rendered, rescued from oblivion by official registers or even photographs. As Mendelsohn discovers himself, the only people who can bring these dead (maybe all dead) back to life are those who knew them.

With this in mind, the author spent the last five years travelling the globe, accompanied by his brother Matt, desperately trying to record the last memories of the last jewish survivors of the polish village of Bolechow (now in the Ukraine). And in the “In Memoriam” page at the end of the book we realize how close he came – several of his subjects died months after his interviews. Some had known his cousins personally – one had been a boyfriend of one of the girls, another a girlfriend.
It is speaking with these holocaust survivors (who have each their own startling story of horror and near escape to share) that Mendelsohn comes across what I find the most important and emotional discovery of the whole book: he might share a last name or genes with this family, he might own some photographs of them, but all the DNA or genealogical software in the world will never bring them closer. Their stories, their true inheritance lie in the minds of those who knew them and loved them, and as those last friends slip off the face of the Earth, so will them, finally.

In the end we are left feeling victorious: the author has saved six people from the oblivion of the mass killings of the nazi regime, and we held steadfast through descriptions of incredible cruelty and sadness, and Mendelsohn’s resolve to educate his readers on several parashot (chapters of the Hebrew Bible). And yet.

And yet one can’t help thinking of the meaninglessness of it all – how those millions of deaths never gave pause, didn’t stop a single genocide or mass killing since then –not even in Europe. Memory is obviously something complex and somewhat malfunctioning in the human mind – and as the last Holocaust survivors vanish from our planet it’s impossible to believe we are not inching closer to an unknown abyss.