Friday, April 30, 2010

Book Fifty: Celestial Navigation by Anne Tyler (and 50B: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

I finally make it to Anne Tyler, one of my favorite writers who does not get the critical support she deserves. Okay, so she has a Pulitzer and National Book Critics Award for The Accidental Tourist (an excellent book), but she has many other novels which deserve attention. 

Tyler's most recognizable feature is her unique characters. To say many of her characters are off center is being polite. Many are just plain strange, but almost always in an appealing way. Tyler loves people, especially those who choose to approach life with their own unique view despite what society tells them. She is not naive about people, and the eternally unhappy person usually makes an appearance, but it is the strange and wonderful which capture her attention.

Celestial Navigation is Tyler's 5th novel, published in 1974 -- long before praise started coming her way. It focuses on Jeremy, a 38-year-old bachelor who has lived with his mother while rarely leaving their house. At the outset we find the mother has died and Jeremy's sisters enter the picture. The mother had turned their house into a boarding house, so Jeremy has company, but over the years he strays less and less from home until he is nearly confined inside. He is an artist with a studio on the top floor, and although at times he is a teacher to some budding artist, his detached and strange ways usually finds them leaving.

In the midst of all the changes comes Mary. She has left her husband and moved to Baltimore with her daughter to be with her new lover, but that eventually ends. Jeremy, much to his surprise, falls in love. Despite his strange ways and unattractive appearance (and Tyler excels in this description), she falls for him as well. In one of my favorite lines, after she tells him no to his marriage proposal, he shocks with the casual line: "What hope do you have for a better life, if you keep on saying no to everything new?"

They have a brood of children and Jeremy begins to make small excursions out and becomes successful as an artist. But now that he has Mary and all he wants, he finds himself drifting once again. The title refers to how Jeremy gets through life, by following his path in the heavens. He steers by a force unseen by others and unknown to him, but it is a path nonetheless.

Tyler writes the book from the perspectives of many characters. Only when doing it from Jeremy's perspective do we get more of a 3rd person narrative. This inconsistency would get Tyler bad marks in a creative writing program, but it works because Jeremy lacks the self consciousness of other people. Tyler takes us through 13 years of his life and we see people sail in and out of his life, but he continues on as before. Characters like Jeremy serve well to make us reexamine our own choices, but Tyler does not use them as foils for our own self interest. Her unique people are to be accepted and even treasured for who they are individually. 

Where Tyler is sometimes criticized is for romanticizing characters and lives (okay, she is also criticized for not having much in the way of sex in her books, but I always thought that was a stupid thing to say about anyone). But Tyler is not romantic about her characters, as this novel will show you, although she is hopeful for them. If that constitutes a weak writer, I hope she continues losing strength!

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This is a great collection of stories which I've read many times since I discovered Sherlock Holmes in 5th grade. I actually read another collection first, but this is the first collection of short stories and one most people are familiar with. I've not read all of them together in quite some time and I certainly have a new eye. At times I was frustrated by Doyle's failure to bring clear closure to a story, and some hardly seemed mysteries at all. However, Holmes is as difficult as ever as a person, which makes him all the more interesting. He does some things for show early on, but his love of deduction is what really drives him. These are well worth the read.

Just for my own fun here is my ranking of the stories (Holmes fans are always ranking stories!).

1)"The Adventure of the Speckled Band"
2)"The Adventure of the Red-Headed League"
3)"A Scandal in Bohemia"
4)"The Boscombe Valley Mystery"
5)"The Five Orange Pips"
6)"The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet"
7)"The Man with the Twisted Lip" 
8)"A Case of Identity"
9)"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle"
10)"The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb"
11)"The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor"
12)"The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"

This will probably change next time. Usually Red-Headed League tops the list.

Up Next 
So close! Just two more weeks to reach my goal. As I said before, Jane Austen gets the final week. But for next week, my busiest week of the year in which I dare not fail in my goal when so close to the end. A friend of mine (who recommended an earlier book) suggested Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams as a short, but not light book. My eldest also warned me that it is not a quick read, but I take heart that I'll manage.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Book Forty-Nine: All the Names by Jose Saramago

If you follow my blog, you'll know I'm open to changing my mind. Such is the case this week when I decided I liked Saramago's book from last week so much, I would try another one. So this week I moved on to All the Names, which features an excellent cover (and no, you can't judge a book by its cover, but then again...).

I am again impressed by Saramago's work and will make a point of reading more of his work. In this novel we follow Senor Jose, a clerk at the Central Registry (where all births, marriages, and deaths are noted) who suddenly decides to track down a woman whose card of information strikes him for some reason. The search takes this lonely 50-something man into terrain for which he is not prepared, yet he continually finds newfound courage with every step.

Saramago's setting is unidentifiable in terms of place, time, or even reality. There is an otherworldly feel to the story, and even the Central Registry is out of touch with its own time. We know there are answering machines and cars, but the Central Registry has one phone and everything is written down by hand. The description of the Registry is fascinating in its description of order without reason, creating a head person (the Registrar) who is almost godlike in his existence.  Saramago creates an atmosphere which is dark, oppressive, and ruled by fear. This setting makes the end of the novel (which I will not reveal) even more surprising.

Have recently read Borges and reaching back in time to Kafka, there are clear echoes of both of these writers. The mystical and the absurd colliding to cast a light on our existence, depressing as it may be. In the end I cannot say "what this book is about," but I will doubtless be pondering it for sometime.

In my last blog I mentioned Saramago's writing style, which appears here as well. I found the following description of his writing in a NY Times article which sums it up well:
Saramago’s most distinctive trademark is his punctuation, or rather the lack of it. His fictions are constructed in run-on sentences disrupted by only commas, a flood of prose in which narrative observation, individuals’ thoughts and dialogue go unmarked. In addition, many of his books refer to one another, and all the characters talk exactly alike, giving their conversations the feel of an internal monologue. It is as if a continuous reel of a silent film were being projected in a movie theater that is empty save for one extremely garrulous spectator. 

You can read the Article in The New York Times if you want more, or even read their review of the book in question here:New York Times Book Review of All the Names

Saramago himself seems to be an interesting character. He starting writing late in life (his late 50s) and is a committed communist and atheist who may be one of five people left in the world thinking Stalin had the right idea. He is described as hard to like, but apparently is hard to stop talking to once he starts.

Between the two I still go with Death with Interruptions, but also recommend this work as well.

Next Up
Okay, I really don't know. Three weeks left and the last two are figured out. I'll just have to surprise you next week.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Book Forty-Eight: Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago

Again I am reminded of why this idea of reading one book per week is such a good idea. I find myself stretching my usual reading and looking for something new. This week it is Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. Although familiar with the name, I had never read anything by him. However, the premise of this book caught my attention and a week later I have a writer whose work I'll be pursing for some time.

The book focuses on the results of death's (note the small "d") decision to stop having people die at the start of a new year. This death (thus the small "d") is only responsible for people in one country, so of course this  creates all kinds of interesting scenarios. At first people are ecstatic about their new found eternal life, but then reality sets in. People do not die, but they do not stay healthy. Those on the brink of death stay on the brink of death, and people who should die as results of accidents just live on in pain. Nursing homes suddenly find themselves with no room for new customers and undertakers begin specializing in burying pets (non-human deaths are handled by another death). People handling life insurance are the most creative in handling the crisis as they figure out a way to get people to buy their product with promise of an early payout. Even a newly formed "maphia" finds business in transporting the dying across the country's borders so that people can die.  Of course the government (a monarchy) goes into crisis mode with calls for action from several groups, not the least of which is the Catholic Church.

As a Catholic I found this aspect most interesting. Saramago is not kind to Christianity in this book, but he does raise interesting points about the what the lack of death would mean to Christianity. Mine is a faith based on the overcoming of death, so when death ceases to exist, does faith lose its meaning?

What Saramago does in this novel is reintroduce the concept of death in society. While most of us work hard to put off the inevitable end, Saramago reminds of the natural and important role of death. He could have stopped at this point and been set, but he takes the concept a step further. Death reintroduces herself (yes, death is a woman) by contacting the government and announcing the return of death. But now, she'll send everyone a letter one week ahead of time so they can prepare.

At this point Saramago turns his attention to death herself, and the result is fascinating character who works without knowledge of why she does what she does. He plays on the all the stereotypes by having her be a skeleton dressed in a robe, the scythe nearby in her plain room where she writes the letters to those who will die. He acknowledges that her femininity is a traditional interpretation. But death's existence is thrown off when one letter refuses to be delivered. In other words, someone is refusing death, even though he does not know it. Saramago then takes us into death's response to this turn of events, but to say more would be to give away too much of the plot.

Saramago's novel is interesting for the wealth of philosophical questions it raises, but it is his writing style which appealed to me the most. A glance at the novel shows solid pages of text since all his conversations simply flow together in the paragraphs, yet without confusion on the speaker. Sentences, ignoring grammatical restraints, can go on for nearly a page at times. Like many contemporary novelists, Saramago is also not shy about addressing the reader. But this is not simply a post-modern experiment. The writing is plot driven and the flowing writing style moves us along smoothly throughout. What may surprise many (including me) given the plot is the amount of humor is the novel. Both the characters and the author recognize cliches and stereotypes, but embrace them with humor instead of avoiding them.

Saramago has created a solid novel throughout. A great premise, sense of humor, raising of good questions, and outstanding writing let me know why he won the Nobel Prize. I'll be searching out more of his works soon.

Up Next
I only have four weeks left in my experiment and I'm feeling unnecessary pressure on what to read. I think I'll finish with Jane Austen, which leaves just a few other books to chose from. Plus, in three weeks I have a week of 18 research papers to read, a daughter's college graduation to consider, and our local Tulip Time festival in which I am involved with daily this year. So what to read now? Anne Tyler definitely needs to get in the mix so one her novels may be next.

A few people have asked if I'll continue the blog after I'm done with my year. I've decided not to, although I'll continue to read a lot and write on Goodreads with some postings on Amazon. If you are on Goodreads (and
 I recommend it) you connect with me at

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Book Forty-Seven: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Decided to go to the ultimate classic this week so I read The Great Gatsby for the, well, I have no idea how many times. I was required to read it for class in high school, college, and grad school. In between I've read it several times on my own and still find it a welcome book to return to. I read it this time since I was thinking of having a student read it who is taking my writing class as an independent study. She is from outside the U.S. and does not have a great deal of experience with American literature so I thought this classic novel would be a good place to start. Not so -- there is much to explain here of U.S. history, and most the characters are not ones I want to represent the U.S.

I found myself wondering why I like this book. One of the things I do not like about Hemingway is that his characters are often whiny, self-absorbed Americans. The same could be said here of Fitzgerald, although the narrator Nick Carraway has a better sense of self than most. The character that makes this all work is Gatsby, a self-made person in all senses of the word. He creates his own history, his own rules, his own goals, and even his own money. He is the American story taken to the extreme and not one we always like to claim as our own. People are enthralled with the character he has created, but not with him. One of the great scenes is of the nearly empty funeral. In the end he is left with his father, Nick, and one of the party goers. The rest see Gatsby's value in what he offers, not in who he is.

This approach to people finds support in today's world where "contacts" replace "relationships." In the business world you are encouraged to build contacts, but really we do better both personally and professionally with relationships. Gatsby uses his contacts as well, all in the goal of getting Daisy back in his life. That is perhaps one of the saddest themes we pull out of this book, that of using others. But is what all the characters do -- use others for their benefit. There seems to be little enjoyment of others in themselves, but only in what they provide, be it money, sex, status, comfort, or entertainment. Gatsby uses others and allows himself to be used in his search for Daisy. What is surprising is how willing all these characters are willing to work in such a fashion.

Which returns me to the question of why I like this book so much. To begin with, it is extremely well written. A relatively short book, it takes words, sentences, and plot seriously enough not to waste time. Fitzgerald quickly draws strong, recognizable characters and creates tensions on several levels. Add to that the romanticism of the 1920s and you have an irresistible draw. But if you look closely (or to be honest, not even that closely), you'll find Fitzgerald does not offer the romantic view of the decade he calls the "jazz age." Instead, this is a surprisingly moralistic look at human nature's worst side and the fall that will surely accompany it. A moralistic novel? Now that is American.

Read more about Fitzgerald at F. Scott Fitzgerald Page.

Up Next 
I already started and am enjoying Jose Saramago's Death with Interruptions. He won the Nobel prize in 1998, but I've never read anything by him. His writing style is unique and challenging, but also intriguing.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Book Forty Six: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (and 46B: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan)

I first reviewed Hamid 10 weeks ago with his novel Moth Smoke, which I enjoyed. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a more recent work published in 2007 and his maturity shows. This is an outstanding, creatively imagined story which manages to give many of us non-Islamic folks a glimpse into what being Islamic in the U.S. must have been like after 9/11.

The story takes place in Pakistan (Lahore) as Changez, once a successful immigrant in the U.S., relates his story to an unnamed American. From a privileged, but poor family, Changez manages to get into Princeton and graduate with honors. He lands a highly sought after and highly paid position with a New York "valuation" firm which tells companies what they are worth. He loves New York, falls in love with an American woman, and has more money than he ever anticipated.

But after Sept. 11Changez not only finds himself being viewed differently, but begins to view himself differently as well. He suddenly decides to grow a beard which draws even more attention to himself and begins to question his role in the U.S. In the meantime, his relationship with the woman he loves changes for reasons not related to Sept. 11, but also makes him question some essential questions.

While the unnamed and unheard American in the cafe could be a mere foil, Hamid manages to create an interesting character we know only through the eyes of Changez. The American's own visit to Pakistan is questionable and Changez works hard to assure the man of his safety. By the end of the novel you are surprised to find yourself in a page-turning, suspense-filled plot (and I'm not giving away any endings).

Hamid's narrative is tight and well controlled. At times I questioned the strange romantic relationship, but at the end of the novel we see that it serves to show us another side of the U.S. and Changez's relationship to it. It also teaches about Changez as a person, although we can see how he may appear distant to others. His work at the "valuation" firm is a high stakes position in which his answers determine the fate of others. When this begins to bother him he is encouraged to separate himself from the results since anyone could produce them -- it is nothing personal and he does not make the decisions. But Changez recognizes his role in the process.

It is this role which we build out upon as Changez begins to see the role he plays in other areas of his life. What he recognizes is that passivity is not an option. To use the existentialist formula, "not to choose is to choose."  In other words, he moves from passivity to action which seems to surprise many, including himself. But is he really changing or simply becoming for himself? That is up to the reader to decide.

Regardless of the answer, Hamid's book is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand more of what is happening in the world today. There are no simple answers, but there is insight.

The Lightning Thief

Not a lot to say on this one. It is a YA (Young Adult) book and I've not read too many to compare this one to. At a glance it seems like Harry Potter, but with the Greek Myths in the U.S.. Young boy with special powers he was not aware he had, goes on a quest to essentially save the world along with another boy and a girl, and saves the world but gets a hint of something more sinister at work (here comes Kronos and the sequels).

But despite all that, I liked the book. My ten-year-old read it and wanted me to read it before we go see the movie version. He enjoyed it and it has sparked his interest in the Greek myths as well. Riordan has fun imagining the Greek gods and demigods into today's world (Mars is a motorcycle man) and he has a sense of humor. Worth reading if you like YA books.

Next Up
Not sure and I really should know by now. It has hit me that I have just six weeks left in my goal to read a book a week for a year, and I'm surprised how quickly it went. I had plans to read a bunch of classics, and while I've read many, I've also stretched my reading quite a bit. So I'm debating several books as I near the end of my quest, but relax when I remind myself that I'm still allowed to read after the year is up.