East of Eden

“The Salinas was only a part-time river. The summer sun drove it underground. It was not a fine river at all, but it was the only one we had and so we boasted about it – how dangerous it was in a wet winter and how dry it was in a dry summer. You can boast about anything if it’s all you have.” (East of Eden by John Steinbeck)

A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy – that’s the time that seems long in the memory. And this is right when you think about it. Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all”(East of Eden by John Steinbeck)

I believe in a clean first read. I believe that each book should stand on its own, and that secondary criticism and biographical information can come later, after your personal impression has been formed free and clear. However, I had to break my own rule with East of Eden. I couldn’t wait to find out where it fell in Steinbeck’s bibliography. I was certain it had to be a more amateur work than The Grapes of Wrath – it’s meandering, unevenly paced, occasionally obvious, and a whole main character feels flat – but I was entirely wrong. Not only was it a later work, but Wikipedia claims Steinbeck believed it was his best work. Factual bibliography notwithstanding, Grapes constantly won my mind’s Grapes V. East of Eden battle; the former always seeming a more mature, experienced work even though technically written 13 years earlier.

For those who haven’t read it, East of Eden is partially a biography of Steinbeck’s own extended family (he himself is a character as a child) and partially an account of a fictional family. The real family is abbreviated and summarized, packed up nice and tidy, while the fictional family wallows in intricate details that never quite serve to give the sheen of realism Steinbeck seems to be striving for. Yet, even for its flaws, it’s still Steinbeck. It’s still brilliantly written (I attempted to shove no fewer than 25 quotes into this post), still vacillates between the intimate family story and the greater American story, still contains unimpeachable insights into the human soul. Still entirely worth starting and impossible not to finish. And yet, the images that linger in your mind after the book has been shut and returned to the shelf are not as pristine as Grapes, they are marred by the book’s flaws and, perhaps, a slight hint of trying too hard.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 691
Ending: Attempts to pull some themes together. Felt far too moral and symbolic to be satisfying to me. Anyone else get that feeling?
Incidental Learning: history of Salinas Valley, Steinbeck’s extended family
Further Reading: Grapes of Wrath 

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells

“New readers, as they say, start here; the old lags familiar with the Wooster family setup might like to practice a scale or two on the piano while I bring the tyros up to the mark on…” (Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks)

“This book is intended as a tribute – from me and on behalf of any other show don’t think it falls too lamentably short of the mark – to P.G. Wodehouse: a thank-you for all the pleasure his work has given. I have been reading him with joy and admiration for over half a century.” (Author’s Note by Sebastian Faulks)

I’ve checked out Jeeves and the Wedding Bells from the library on four separate occasions, always finding a reason to return it unread. I felt both that reading a Jeeves and Wooster not penned by Wodehouse would be bit of a betrayal, and also that a new one could never help living up to the original, so why bother? And yet, every so often I would hear a positive review and my curiosity would lead me to the library once more. In the end, the author’s note won me over. In it, Faulks admits that he’s merely writing fan fiction, and dares to hope merely that his work will bring a new readership to the old books. How could one take issue with such a timid, polite ambition?

After reading it, one cannot help but feel that Faulks’ assessment of his work was spot on. He doesn’t imitate Wodehouse perfectly – there are too many heavy handed historical references and muddled plot lines for that – but he does succeed in the summoning the essential Wooster reading experience of delight and lightheartedness. He also gives lifelong fans the happy ending denied them in the original series: a conclusion to Bertie’s seemingly life-long bachelorhood.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 256
Ending: Happy!
Incidental Learning: way more about cricket than you ever cared to know
Further Reading: THE REST OF JEEVES AND WOOSTER. It’s in caps because I’m yelling it. If you haven’t read them, now’s the time.

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time

“And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery…and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.” (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon)

CoverThere are few things I love more than a well-executed understated plot. So many books revolve around a marriage plot, a world-saving plot, or a grand mystery unraveled that one gets sick of all the escapades. How many events that dramatic happen in one’s own life? Eventually it becomes impossible to relate to them except as a method of escapism. In this book, no one changes except perhaps the secondary characters, and nothing happens that is more exciting than a train ride to London.

In spite of the circumspect plot-line, Haddon uses his first-person narrator – an autistic teen – as a springboard to discuss subjects as far ranging as advanced mathematics, philosophy, and physics in language so straight-forward and clear that it becomes poetry. You come away from the book both with the intimate comfort of insignificant things and the mind-expanding thrill of learning something new. A lovely combination, and an exceptional read.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 226
Ending: So hopeful and brave that you have to shed a tear, even though there’s not one particle of sentimentality in the whole book
Incidental Learning: Classic mathematical problems, facts about space, Sherlock Holmes references, etc, etc, etc
Further Reading: I’d suggest moving on to more adult/children’s books, like Neil Gaiman, perhaps.

Booklion Birthday Awards: Year 7

Time amasses. We make choices about what to do when we’re young, and if they stick, all of a sudden we’ve been doing them for 1/4, 1/3, 1/2 of our lives. Seven years ago, I started writing about the books I read. I remember thinking ‘it’d be neat if I could keep this up for a year or two’ – I envied blogs that had been around that long; that had the authority of time behind them. I never thought that blogging would become a habit so deeply ingrained that nothing, not having a kid, not moving three times in a year, not going to school or working full-time would shake.

I don’t even like the word ‘blog’; it feels old, diary-esque, has-been. It reminds me of myspace and Livejournal and did you know that Dr. Seuss draws a undulating monster called a Blogg in the shape of me and other stuff? Blog sounds a fitting name for a funny-looking thing. Yet, here I am, loving this blog, loving the work that has gone into it, planning on going for another seven years, then another seven after that. Perhaps the medium will change, I might migrate to another format in 2030 (hopefully one with a more elegant name), but I will still be reading, and still be writing about what I’ve read: of that, I am certain.

So, without further ado, here are the mostly meaningless, yet still fun, year 7 Book Lion awards:

Best Book: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Most Bookmarked: Big Magic

Weirdest: Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Funniest: The Sellout

Most Anticipated: Harry Potter 8


The Sellout

“How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books?” (The Sellout by Paul Beatty)

The Sellout coverSome books are best read indoors. You don’t want to be caught smiling while reading Lolita within 50 feet of a playground, for example. Likewise, you can’t help but wonder if you have permission to laugh aloud at a book about a man on trial for owning a slave and re-segregating a community. The premise is shockingly absurd and the layers – which include finding the lost ghetto of Dickens, growing a satsuma tree, and celebrating a childhood celebrity of a racist TV show – vacillate between pithy, hilarious, and cringe-inducing.

This book is a perfectly executed example of the old writer’s adage: be specific. Everything here – from the characters to the cultural references – is tip-of-the-needle precise. The characters are so idiosyncratic that you have to wonder if anyone so unusual and non-conforming could actually exist, and an unknown piece of slang or pop culture could get a reader lost for paragraphs as Beatty riffs on it ad infinitum. Though the overarching plot gets a bit messy with all of these details floating around (Beaty’s talent is drilling down, not pulling together), you won’t mind the loss of cohesiveness as you revel in the writing.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 304
Ending: hopefuls
Incidental Learning: California, growing marijuana and satsumas, racism
Further Reading: Goes pretty well with other books about race I’ve read lately, Americanah or Things Fall ApartThe excellent writing + messy plotting combination almost reminds me of Where’d you go Bernadettewhich would be a strange follow-up to this book…

Jane Eyre

“A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader – you must fancy you see a room…” (Jane Eyre by Charlote Brontë)

Jane Eyre coverWhen I think of this book, I visualize two separate, distinct pieces of fabric loosely knit together by a few threads. There’s the first book, a love story/gothic mystery, and the second book, a pious, studious affair. Brontë attempts to create conflict by placing two options before of her heroine – earthly love or divine love – but in this day and age, the urgency and suspense of the struggle falls flat: we all know which we would pick. Perhaps the book might once have seemed cohesive, when readers were more likely to think of a religious life as a real choice, but to the modern reader, the book reads like a romance with a strange, lengthy, and meandering bit about religion wedged in.

Though I have expressed this wish many times, it remains particularly true in the case of Jane Eyre: I wish that the basic plots of classic books weren’t so commonly known. Having survived this long without having read this Brontë work, the ‘wife in the attic’ should have been a compelling mystery, pulling me along the standard love story plot line. Yet, having absorbed the basics of most classics through some sort of cultural osmosis, the thrill of unraveling the mystery was closed off to me since I had anticipated the revelation from the title page. Whatever facts I absorbed didn’t set any expectations for the tone, and I was delighted by its intimacy and modernity. Brontë addresses the reader as Trollope does, but her use of a first person narrator makes the reader feel as though they’re perusing a diary filled with Jane’s thoughts and feelings instead of reading an objective, narrator based Victorian novel.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 448
Ending: Summarizes events ten years later
Incidental Learning: Life of Governesses, England during George III
Further Reading: I’d recommend Trollope next, for the similarity of narrative voice.

The Forty Rules of Love

“Although I was eager to listen to the sermon and dying to meet Rumi, I wanted to spend some time in the city first and learn…” (The Forty Rules of Love by Shafak)

A 3rd-person narrative encapsulates a book-within-a-book, told in 1st person from multiple characters’ perspectives. Point of view characters range from a modern housewife to historical figures living in 13th century Turkey.

The above description of Forty Rules of Love alone is enough to make a careful reader suspicious. After all, how many writers have the capacity to properly enter the minds of so many different people? A handful a generation? Whether you pay attention to the dizzying narrative layers or not, it only takes a few chapters to see that all of the perspectives – famous 13th century scholars to nameless 13th century lepers – sound like contemporary housewives. Mystics young and old use modern colloquialisms like ‘dying to’, ‘cry my heart out’ and ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’. Not only do all the characters, regardless of their time period, sound alike, but they also think alike. All take stock of their lives in the same way, look towards the future in the same way, vow to be better people in the same way.

I have an image in my mind about how this book could have been: every character having their own voice and manner of thinking – a book where enlightened poets and religious heretics didn’t have such a modern sense of quantifying themselves, their lives, and everyone around them. A book where Rumi’s words and Shams’ rules were allowed to play out through characterization instead of listed and enumerated. That’s the book I want to read.

That being said, I can easily see how this book could be an inspiration to many people. If you aren’t looking for literature, if you’re looking for a straightforward way to learn more about Sufism, then this could still be an excellent read for you. Shafak’s even pacing and foreshadowing move the reader effortlessly through the chapters, and it may even inspire you to go back and read the original materials for further information.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 350
Ending: as foreshadowed
Incidental Learning: Sufism, 13th century Turkey, Rumi, Shams
Further Reading: The Essential Rumi