Tuesday, June 22, 2010

People of the Book and Why Dianthus Must Read

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks is yet another book my mother gave me recently (I don't, by the way, remember my mother physically giving me all of these books, but somehow at least five of them ended up on one of my many "to be read" stacks). This one traces a rare book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, back through its history. Chapters alternate between first person narration by an Australian book conservationist in 1996 and third person accounts of the story behind each "flaw" in the book. That description hardly makes it sound gripping, but it is.
The Sarajevo Haggadah, surfacing in Sarajevo in 1996, has been through it all. It has seen war, disease, slavery, wealth, and a full range of human depravity. There were times with glimmers of religious tolerance and times of overt anti-semitism. While the plot in 1996 propels People of the Book forward, the historical chapters make the book something greater than a silly intellectual mystery* and family drama. A few times I thought that Brooks was trying too hard to distribute vices and virtues: "Okay, I have a Christian with syphilis, a Jew with gambling addiction and an atheist who ignores her family. I think the rapist and the redeemer both need to be Muslim." But then she shocked me with a plot line that didn't turn out, and given how funny I found a recurring bit about Australian vs. Austrian stereotypes, I could forgive her for a lot. PotB is recommended for Irene, Janet and any of the knitters. Compared to HotCoBaS and UE, I would say that its strengths are stronger but weaknesses more obvious. I think it is less of a chick book, but I always have a hard time determining that.

As I was reading PotB, I kept asking the Mister questions about Bosnian history, the extent of the Ottoman Empire, the formation of Yugoslavia and the like. Then, as we were driving to Baltimore over the weekend, I announced that, assuming Dianthus has the capability, we are going to do everything in our power to find a way for him to enjoy reading. The Mister, being married to me, is used to non-sequiturs, so wasn't terribly surprised that this stemmed from a Habsburg Empire query. Aside from learning to write well (which the Mister swears is a direct product of reading things written well, and I'm unlikely to argue), reading teaches so much. I dare say that almost all of the history I know is a result of fiction reading.

What have you learned from books?

*I must admit here I am a sucker for silly intellectual mysteries and that I am particularly fond of heroines with advanced degrees in seemingly obscure fields.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A month ago

This was taken in Liberty, Missouri on May 18. It was Dianthus's first swing ride. He has more teeth now (four of them total) and everyone at day care keeps commenting that he's much bigger.

Have I Never Grown Up? Books about immigrants and parental conflict

Since finishing The Gold Bug Variations last week, I fell back into the reading habit and cruised through Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford and Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri.*

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a sweet, sometimes tear-jerking story of a Chinese boy "coming of age" in Seattle during World War II and the ramifications of his relationship with a Japanese American girl. It felt a
lot to me like reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: the history makes one cry and question, "How have I never thought about this before?" and the story, through lots of ups and downs, may be a bit too sweet, but I wouldn't change any of it. Reading it (in a day and a half) made me hungry for more reading and want to re-read The Chosen because of the father-son relationships and communication gaps..
If I didn't read them in a row, I wouldn't have thought Unaccustomed Earth had much to do with HotCoBaS. Unaccustomed Earth is a series of short stories with no plot pay-off. The stories concern Bengali immigrants in the United States** in all sorts of relationships: with their parents, their children, their lovers, their housemates and their siblings. Some are told through the point of view of the immigrant, some through the second generation children, some both. I was continually comparing it to The Joy Luck Club. The stories in UE are better stand-alone stories than those in Amy Tan's novel, but I found myself longing for some clever, Joy Luck style connection among the stories in UE.
However, I did read Unaccustomed Earth immediately after Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and couldn't help but notice the reoccurring theme: failing to communicate with one's parents is an essential part of, or at least a necessary consequence of, growing up. And I've pretty much always liked talking to my parents. Unlike the characters in both books, I have the advantage of speaking the same language as my parents and I am a product of the same basic culture, just 27 years and a thousand miles removed. Still, maybe we need a major disconnect in order for me to grow up. I don't think that my teenage years fully count. My parents certainly didn't understand me at thirteen, but then nobody understood me at thirteen. Somehow I knew, even then, that this tragedy of being terribly misunderstood wasn't unique to me and it certainly wasn't the fault of my parents. Later, at 22, the first time my heart was broken, nobody could understand that I knew my heart would someday mend but it hurt horridly now (and my wonderful ex wasn't even slimy about it, so I didn't have the release of being justifiably angry or feeling horribly deceived). That I didn't want to talk to my parents about it had nothing to do with them. In my thirties, I've spoken to them out genuine desire, rather than obligation, at least every week, usually far more often. Maybe I haven't grown up. But if strife is an requisite part of the maturation process, at this point I'm willing to call myself lucky and never grow up.

Anyway, as far as recommendations go, I know of many people who would enjoy both books. UA is probably better written than HotCoBaS and feels much more modern, but sweet old-fashioned HotCoBas is better plotted (even though the last page of UE was surprising enough that it knocked the wind out of me).
Both of these books are easier to recommend (and read) than The Gold Bug Variations, but they leave me much less confused about my opinion. I know many of my readers will enjoy these books (and I'm not so sure about TGBV), but I want people to read TGBV so we can discuss it.

*Thanks to my mom for giving me these books. Another potential example of not being a grown up: I very rarely actually pick out my own books. Books come to me and I read them.
**Lahiri is the author of The Namesake, a book I must read if only to see what I think it is about. My mother loved the book. I saw the movie. We didn't think they were about the same thing, which is not unusual for comparing a book with a movie, but mom didn't even know why I was asking about Nikolai Gogol (the namesake, a major part of the movie).

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A book at last: The Gold Bug Variations

Along with many other accolades ("Best Book of the Year 1991" and so forth) Richard Powers' The Gold Bug Variations now can also be recognized as the book that I actively read for the longest. I started it on the second job interview in February and finished it Monday, reading at least some every week for that period. I didn't read any other adult fiction during that time or put it aside and abandon it. Beyond that, TGBV is the most clever book I have read in a very long time.
Irene gave it to me in December*, describing it as, "a book that was written recently that really feels like literature." I attempted to describe it to Sal Sis when I was visiting in March. I mentioned the connections between Poe's The Gold Bug and Bach's Goldberg Variations and DNA**. She flipped to the back where the words "science" "mystery" and "romance" are all used and asked if it is really a sci-fi mystery or just about relationships. For clarification, TGBV is fiction about science, it is not in the least sci-fi, and it is not a mystery in any book genre sense, (there are mysteries, "how did a brilliant scientist become washed up on the night shift?" and "how can the same four bases code for all of life?" but they are a far cry from whodoneit murders).

Powers captures the wonder of molecular biology: that one simple molecule can lead to life in is infinite varieties, as well as anyone I've ever read. He intentionally captures a moment in the history of biology I'd never previously considered, the time when the structure of DNA was well established but nobody had a good idea how the molecule actually coded for anything. Whether intentional or not, the 1980s are similarly well captured, a time when reference librarians were helpful because they knew in which book to find a piece of information. When I started reading it, all of this just made the book feel dated, by the end, I ignored it as I was fascinated by the human story.

I really want my friends to read this book, but I am struggling as to who, exactly, I would recommend read it. Sal Sis might enjoy it, but it's not sci-fi (and one character takes a few cheap shots at religion). I think it's too slow for most of my family members. I'd be curious about Marieke's or Amateur Reader's thoughts, although I know it doesn't fit in with either's reading plans. Jenny, maybe, would be a good candidate, as would most knitting friends. My Aunt maybe?
While I plan on discussing this with Irene soon, I'd like other people to talk both plot and theme with as well. Read The Gold Bug Variations, or have someone read it, and then let's discuss.
*Thanks Irene!
**The Gold-Bug is about logical code breaking. DNA and the Goldberg Variations are both simple segments repeating regularly that give rise to incredibly varied and complex "wholes" from the same basic parts.

Friday, June 4, 2010

That's How Lucky I Am

I'm sweating sitting in my stuffy office frantically milling through piles of paperwork trying to efficiently locate a receipt to turn in for our medical savings account and worrying about all the moving details that are not yet begun. I took a break to see if there were any new quotes from moving companies and realized that I had not posted in over a week.
It's a great time to remind myself that I lead a charmed life. A few quickly chosen examples:
  • I have friends who think of me when they read about luck [ evidence that lucky people share personality traits (thanks Irene!) (more details here)], and noodles [flying spaghetti monster iphone accessories, (thanks Supplement Scriber!)].

  • While we were in Kansas, my son pulled over one of Sal Sis's shelves, destroying several fragile items. She just wrote me a nice message telling me how much fun he is (thanks Sal Sis, he thinks you and your menagerie are lots of fun too!).

  • Marieke, my blogosphere friend who lives, reads, writes and gardens in Western Scotland, sent me a pasta card with rodent stamps. A woman I "met" the one time I tried a random search feature on blogger turns out to be a kindred spirit and happy with her inner pasta. How lucky is that?

  • My future house has a sundae parlour.