The Prince of Tides

“You get a little moody sometimes but I think that’s because you like to read. People that like to read are always a little fucked up.” (The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy)

The Prince of Tides CoverThe Prince of Tides is one of those books where the reason you want to recommend it to everyone is also its greatest weakness. Pat Conroy’s famous story is about a tragically dysfunctional family whose drama and beauty almost boarder on magical realism. It is a perfect story to delve into on a rainy weekend because Conroy paces the suspense and foreshadowing perfectly to guarantee nearly unstoppable reading. The narrator, Tom Wingo, is so good at making inspirational speeches and witty, sarcastic remarks, that he actually made me love sports (and the south) for a fleeting moment. Yet, and I think you must already be sensing the problem here, every single story and sentence are so overly-dramatic that – if you were able to stop reading for long enough – you might cringe and be slightly embarrassed for the book.

Conroy has this habit of telling the reader something in flowery prose that isn’t backed up by the stories. For example, we hear on repeated occasions that the narrator is ‘special’ and ‘rare’, but each story illustrates how normal and humdrum he is – his only gift (for which there is no explanation) is the witty retort and melodramatic line. Yet, if Tom Wingo weren’t such a powerful storyteller, this book would be another piece of slow, modern literature examining the character of the south. Conroy’s ability to reveal dramatic events and to build expectation with such theatrical foreshadowing is what makes this book such a true pleasure to read. So just make sure that when you do decide to pick up this novel, you are in the right state of mind: ready to relinquish your inner critic to the power of a good story.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBR Avoid

Length: 688

Ending: wistful

Further Reading: Another fantastic story teller of family histories is Kate Morton. She doesn’t focus on the south, but her stories are equally satisfying.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

“He has the strangest expression on his face- the emotional equivalent of 404 PAGE NOT FOUND.” (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan)

Mr. Penumbras 24-hour bookstore CoverThis is exactly the kind of book I should love. It blends technology and art with a kids-book-like quick-paced  plot, quirky characters, and even contains a book within a book – which gets me every time. But not this time. The characters were too perfectly eccentric, the plot too quick and tidy, and the blend of tech and books a little too forced. In real life, people’s talents and hopes are not so easy to ferret out and use to your advantage.

Perhaps one of the reasons people love fantasy so much is that it models a passion and purpose that modern life, with all of its apathy, can no longer contain. Sloan attempts to update the fantasy quest storyline by giving it a modern, skeptical hero – but by doing so defeats the purpose of reading fantasy in the first place. Basically, this is a quest with no passion. The main character finds himself in a pseudo-fantasy mystery mirroring the plot points of his favorite book, which he cannot bring himself to really care about or believe in. He goes through the motions of the quest because he might like his boss a bit and encounters no stumbling blocks that cannot be overcome by a quick text to his friend-of-choice. The quest does not change him in any significant way and only marginally improves his life.

Essentially: this is the story of a master networker, who uses his connections to solve a bizarre mystery he isn’t invested in, which leads him to a much-needed job. When I need some escapist literature, I don’t want it to be that close to real life.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow – TBR – Avoid

Length: 304 pgs.

Audiobook quality: narrator’s voice made me think I was reading a children’s book.

Ending: Epilog tidied everything up, as expected.

Further reading: I did read a quest story recently which managed to be modern and exciting, but still convey the thrill and excitement of a character with a real need to complete his quest. It had its own problems, but Ready Player One is a crazy readable book.

The School of Essential Ingredients

“The chocolate made a rough sound as it brushed across the fine section of the grater, falling in soft clouds onto the counter, releasing a scent of dusty back rooms filled with bittersweet chocolate and old love letters, the bottom drawers of antique desks and the last leaves of autumn, almonds and cinnamon and sugar.” (the school of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister)

The School of Essential Ingredients CoverWe are trained to think of books as Very Serious things. People are always encouraging us to read more, and everywhere research says that books benefit the brain. We tend to borrow or purchase big ones, and slowly chip away at them as though completing a nightly duty. There is always a subtle pressure about finding a ‘good’ book, because they can be such an investment of time and energy. So sometimes, it can be freeing to pick up a medium-looking volume, stay in bed on a weekend morning, and read it all in one fell swoop. Then you realize that books are not so serious after all, and that they can be just as light and ephemeral as any movie.

Though I already have several fantastic sounding books in my pile (such as the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde), I decided instead to bring home this comfortable sounding one. I cannot say that it was brilliant or bettered my life; but it did top off a sleepy, relaxing morning perfectly. The food-oriented modern realistic stories were cozy, well written, and intriguing. While each character wasn’t fully flushed out, the stories left just enough for the imagination to continue with on its own. The descriptions of the cooking lessons were, of course, the real draw of the book. Though I don’t agree with the teacher’s blatant moralizing on not tasting batter with raw eggs in it, the descriptions of slow-simmering sauces and creamy tiramisus inspired me to complete the reading experience with my own baking project – which is the best outcome of a food book anyway.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow – TBR Avoid

Length: 255

Ending: Satisfying, but open to the imagination

Further Reading: According to LJ, this book is part of an emerging genre of food related writing. I found out about it because Bauermeister is publishing a new book in January, called ‘The Lost Art of Mixing’. I expect it will be in the same vein.

*Disclaimer: In order to get through my enormous backlog, I’ve decided to do several short posts instead of a big compilation. This is purely for selfish reasons; as it will make it easier for me to search for a specific book in the future. I’ll try to get it over with as quickly as possible.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

“…for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth. (Gabriel Carcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude)

People love listing and memorizing famous first lines of books, but what about last lines, or, in the case of this book, all of the lines which come before? In terms of prose, nothing happens simply in this book. Words were not merely indecipherable; they “looked like clothes hung out to dry on a line”.  People do not have sex or even make love; they “manage to thank God for having been born before [loosing themselves] in the inconceivable pleasure of that unbearable pain”. Reading One Hundred Years of Solitude is like visiting Prague; every street corner and every bit of every sentence is so beautiful that even a photograph wouldn’t convince your friends and family of the fact. They simply have to go there themselves.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez has a way of expressing the entire life of a person in one instant, trait or accident. Take Rebeca for instance: her essential being is not found in the tumultuous events of her life, but in the infinitesimal characteristic Marquez zooms in on: “Mad with desperation, Rebeca got up in the middle of the night and ate handfuls of earth in the garden with a suicidal drive, weeping with pain and fury, chewing tender earthworms and chipping her teeth on snail shells”. It is as if eating dirt sums up Rebecca as a person far more than who she married or how she died. And perhaps, it does.  According to Marquez, people are not defined by the whole events of their lives, or even the decisions they make, but instead by that one uncontrollable moment, usually from childhood, generally buried in shame. It is thrilling and not a little frightening to try to name what Marquez would label as your defining trait.

Beverage… The Buendia’s always drink their coffee black, an inherited preference, along with incest and solitude. But the rest of Macando drinks theirs sweetened with milk, if you would prefer.

Reminds me… of Midnight’s Children in its mythical, almost bordering on unreal, events.


Midnight’s Children

“Every pickle-jar (you will forgive me if I become florid for a moment) contains, therefore, the most exalted of possibilities: the feasibility of the chutnification of history; the grand hope of the pickling of time! I, however, have pickled chapters… I reach the end of my long-winded autobiography; in words and pickles, I have immortalized my memories, although distortions are inevitable in both methods.” (Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie)

For whatever reason, I have found that Midnight’s Children has grown on me in retrospect. So many images, like the pickling jars, the widow who is green but whose hair is black as black, and Saleem’s nose, have only become stronger in my mind as more time has elapsed. Yet, when I was actually reading it, it was almost a laborious process. Now don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying that the book is anything but masterful, but it was as if the Children of Midnight’s failed potential was just too much to bear all at once. I had to digest it in small pieces in order to take up the emotional weight of Rushdie’s work.

Beverage: You could enjoy a symbol-filled drink by mixing green matte and black as black english breakfast, topping it off with a little cream of your choice (I prefer a bit of soy milk and rice milk mixed)

Reminds me of: Perhaps because I read them around the same time, Midnight’s Children almost reminds me of A Confederacy of Dunces in that they both luxuriate in rather graphic and sometimes lurid details.

Question: I have heard that many of Rushdie’s works are marvelous, but I have not read them.  If anyone could recommend others I would be very grateful.