Saturday, January 31, 2015

Classical Music for the Reader 5: Great Masterpieces for the Dedicated Reader

Whether you love or hate Amazon, it is hard to ignore just how innovative and clever the company is because it seems as if Amazon thinks of everything before the competition does - or, at the very least, tweaks the ideas of other companies until the company seems to own even those.

Here's a little case in point that I stumbled upon just yesterday.  Have you ever been reading in a public space, say over a quick solo lunch, but have it turn into one of those tremendously frustrating experiences during which you simply cannot drown out the inane chatter and giggling around you no matter how hard you try to concentrate?  

Well, if you are an Amazon Prime customer, it's problem solved for free.  I was in McDonald's for my twice-monthly Egg McMuffin fix yesterday morning when it happened to me again.  But I had earbuds and my Kindle Fire with me, so I tapped the music icon and started looking for music that I could loose myself in while continuing to read.  And I found just the thing...specially chosen classical cuts perfect to listen to while reading, an album called "Classical Music for the Reader."

Note that the album cover pictured is marked as being number 5, so I assume that there are several different compilations of this kind of music.  (I have placed two of them into my Prime Music library but have not looked for any others.)  I do know, too, that there are also compilations called Prime Music Playlists that are pre-set for certain moods and situations.  I have one of these called "Classical Music for Studying" in my free library all ready to go when I next need to drown out distracting sounds.

The ones I've tried work pretty well and allow me to tune out all but the noisiest humanoids in my midst.  Within seconds yesterday, I was able to fully concentrate on my reading except during those particularly quiet moments that come with some classical music.  The answer to that, I found; was to switch to a selection of Bach violin concertos - where the quiet moments are fewer and farther between.

Short Story Saturday: La Tristesse Des Hèrissons by Jacob M. Appel

"Love sometimes requires a willingness to indulge unreasonable requests..."  These are the words of a man whose girlfriend does not even begin to understand when the line toward "unreasonable" has been crossed.  It is their story that Jacob Appel tells in "La Tristesse Des Hèrissons," the second offering in his short story collection, Einstein's Beach House.

Because Adeline has been unhappy for a while, Josh is happy enough to go along with the idea of bringing a pet into their home.  But he pictures something like a Doberman or a German Shepard...a hedgehog with emotional problems never even crosses his mind.  Guess what he ends up with?  Now, life with a pet hedgehog and a neurotic girlfriend can't be easy, but it can be funny - and Jacob Appel's tale of perhaps the one man on Earth willing to endure such a life kept me smiling from start to finish.  

In addition to being an author, Jacob Appel is a psychiatrist and a bioethicist.  "La Tristesse Des Hèrissons" is only the second of his short stories I have read, but if the two are an accurate indicator of the rest of his work, Appel's fiction makes good use of his scientific background.  For sure, this one was fun.

I look forward to reading the six remaining stories in the Einstein's Beach House collection, and I plan a more formal review of the book for mid-February.  Look for it then.  

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Year of Reading Dangerously: First Thoughts

I finished up Andy Miller's The Year of Reading Dangerously a few minutes ago while also finishing up a very slow-paced four-mile walk during which I only crossed paths with two other people...and that for all of 5 seconds or so.  I will be writing a more formal review of the book in a bit, but today I want to share some quotes from it that made me laugh a little, think a little, and add Andy Miller to the list of writers I would like to have coffee with one day.

At this point, just know that when, Miller decided to write the book, he was pushing forty, had a young child at home, and had pretty much quit reading actual books for pleasure.  Despite a love of books dating back as far as he can remember, the man just could not be bothered with them anymore.  Then he woke up...and he shares that awakening with the rest of us in The Year of Reading DangerouslyThat should set the tone for most of these quotes, some directly from Miller, and others he used in the book:

Alan Bennett's definition of a classic: "a book everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have."

Schopenhauer: "It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them; but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents."

Again, Schopenhauer: "We remember our lives a little less well than a novel we once read."

And, one from Miller that made me laugh: "Each time someone breathlessly informed me they would never have read, say, A Confederacy of Dunces if it weren't for their new Kindle or Nook, all they were telling me was that they were a fully paid up confederate dunce."

Finally, this one in which Miller, who does own an e-reader, explains the conclusion he reached about the devices: If you like reading, this is the object you have been waiting for; but if you love reading as I do, you may struggle to comprehend what all the fuss is about.  Did it make reading better? Of course not.  It's a useful addition to our library, not a replacement for it.  I take the Kindle with me wherever I go.  But I also take a good book."

Thursday, January 29, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See: Halleluiah, I Am Finished

Early this morning (around 4:45 Houston time), I felt as if a burden had been lifted from my shoulders.  That's the precise moment that I turned the 530th, and final, page of All the Light We Cannot See.  I'm done!

Now, admittedly, the last 90 or so pages of the book did finally start working better for me.  I was curious, if not necessarily anxious, about how the author was going to have his two main characters interact when they finally met.  I'm sure that Mr. Doerr would have preferred anxiety over curiosity as I approached the book's climax, but he should consider curiosity an achievement considering my blasè reaction to the book's first 400 pages.  

Because this is my fourth post about All the Light We Cannot See, I am going to consider the four, taken together, as my official "review" of the book.  

I want to make a few final points both about All the Light and about the review process, in general.  As for the book itself, I found it rather dry and repetitive despite its shift of scene and characters every two or three pages. The plot was an intriguing one or I would have never picked up the book in the first place - but the style in which it was recounted, mainly due to repetitiveness and slow pacing, was just not a comfortable fit for me.  I was never drawn toward picking the book up between readings; I had to force myself to go back to it instead of reading from other books that I was enjoying more.  And, while the book's characters were interesting ones, I never became emotionally invested in any of them with the exception of a minor character called Frederick ( but explaining Frederick would cause me to reveal a spoiler).

These are my thoughts on the process of book reviewing:

During my eight years on Book Chase, I have never held myself out as some kind of authority on what constitutes a good book and what makes a book a bad one.  I am not an authority.  I am simply someone who has been reading steadily for over 50 years, someone who quickly recognizes when a book is working for him and when it is not.  What I do in my reviews is explain why a book works for ME - or why it fails to do so.  I realize that my reviews are based on opinion, gut feel, and and so many other intangibles that I could not list them all even if I tried.  

But more importantly, I realize that one man's trash is another man's treasure.  I am well aware that All the Light We Cannot See is a book loved by many thousands of readers around the world.  I know that it is a hit with most professional reviewers who are lucky enough still to have their work published in major newspapers.  I am not saying they are wrong about the book.  I'm not saying that I'm right.

I am simply telling you why this particular book does not work for me.  You may love it; you may hate it.  Only you can decide something that personal.

Earlier Posts Mentioned:

Still Waiting for All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See: Were My Expectations Too High

All the Light We Cannot See: I've Just About Had Enough

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Undertaker's Daughter

The undertaker’s family lived on the second floor of the one funeral home in the little East Texas town in which I grew up – and I was always curious about what that must have been like for the man’s three children.  But the kids were all older than me, and I had no one to ask, a minor problem that made Kate Mayfield’s The Undertaker’s Daughter irresistible.  As it turns out, the memoir is more complicated than I expected it to be. 

Mayfield admirably answers all the questions I had about what it must be like to live around dead bodies and caskets, and (in her case) to sleep directly above the spookiest room in any funeral home, its embalming room.  In addition, she talks about things like the card parties her mother regularly hosted, parties of her own with girlfriends during which they scared each other (and, in the process, themselves) with an Ouija Board, of all things, and the times her father and his own friends “partied” in the home’s oversized garage area.

But all the time anything like this was happening at Mayfield & Son Funeral Home, everyone in the family was subconsciously waiting for the phone call that would announce the imminent arrival of the next dead body – because that’s when things really got crazy.  Then, life on the second floor had to be conducted in almost total silence so as not to disturb the mourners downstairs.  And meals were most often of the sandwich variety so that those same mourners would not be offended by any cooking smells.  To the Mayfield kids, though, it all seemed perfectly normal.

Kate Mayfield
But the real beauty of The Undertaker’s Daughter is in what the author reveals about the inner workings of her family.  Life inside the funeral home was even more difficult than everyone in the little Kentucky town already suspected it might be.  The Mayfield family, as are most, was far from being a perfect one, and Kate Mayfield’s frank account of what was going on behind the scenes is an intriguing one.  Among other things, she explores the often-strained relationship between her parents; recounts what it was like to live with an older sister whose mental problems made her a genuine threat to the safety of her siblings; and exposes the social and sexual mores she herself ignored. 

At times, in fact, The Undertaker’s Daughter reads more like a coming-of-age novel than it does a memoir.  Particularly moving is Kate Mayfield’s strong attachment to her father and how her feelings about him change as she discovers more and more of his personal secrets.  But even with as much as she ultimately learned about her father, the author knows that he took some of his secrets with him to the grave.

Simply put, The Undertaker’s Daughter makes for a fascinating read – and it will be a shame if some Hollywood production company doesn’t turn this into an equally fascinating movie.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See: I've Had Just About Enough


I really never intended for my thoughts on All the Light We Cannot See to become a continuing series.  But the more I read of the book, and the harder it gets to keep pushing through it, the more I wish I had never started it at all.  Let's just say that the wait was, in this case, not worth it.

I am on page 383 now, with something like another 147 pages to go.  And there you have both the good news and the bad (too much reading time invested to quit on it now). The author continues to present his plot in snippets, during which I have often spoken aloud the words "just get on with it, please."  But, no, that's not the way this one works, and that makes me wonder about the editing process that "All the Light" went through before publication. I do realize that Mr. Doerr worked on the manuscript for ten years, but reading the book should not feel like a decade's work...what year is it now, anyway?

As the author flashes back from the present (August 1944) to events four years earlier, and then back to the childhoods of both characters in 1934 and later, I am getting a feeling of "overkill."  This feeling probably explains why I still don't much care about the book's two main characters, a German boy and a French girl, despite the fact that, different as they are, they seem to be headed to a very unpleasant meeting in the very near future.

At the moment, both are in grave danger of dying before that meeting ever takes place (if it does).  And, except as an intellectual exercise, I really don't care if either of them lives another five pages.  I hate it when I feel as if I'm wasting my time on a book...if Doerr is going to save this one for me he's down to less than 150 pages to get the job done.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Essential W.P. Kinsella

I will be forever grateful to W.P. Kinsella even if he never publishes another word because he is responsible for one of my favorite books of all time, Shoeless Joe.  That novel, of course, subsequently morphed into what is one of my favorite movies: Field of Dreams.  And now, thanks to the remarkable new collection of Kinsella's short stories (published in celebration of the author's approaching eightieth birthday), The Essential W.P. Kinsella, I have finally read the short story that started it all, "Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa." 

In addition to being a very fine novelist, W.P. Kinsella is a prolific short story writer with something like two hundred stories to his credit.  In the U.S., he is probably best known for his baseball stories, but in Canada he is perhaps better known for his First Nation stories set on the Hobbema Indian Reservation.  The reservation stories feature a continuing cast of diverse characters through which Kinsella takes satirical pokes at life on the reservation, the Canadian government, and the general attitude of the white population toward Canada's native population.  Those stories, funny as they usually are, often leave the reader pondering a serious point or two about life.

But Kinsella is also the author of what, for lack of a better term, I will call standalone stories, stories that have nothing to do with baseball or with Indians.  It is one of these standalones, in fact, that is my favorite of the entire collection, a story titled "The Last Surviving Member of the Japanese Victory Society."  It tells of a divorced man who falls in love with the Japanese woman who owns the plant and garden nursery he frequents.  It is the story of two people who are determined to be together despite a major obstacle to their relationship: the Japanese woman's mother, who is determined to have nothing to do with "the devil" who has come to take her daughter from her.  “The Last Surviving Member of the Japanese Victory Society” has such a feel of honesty and frankness about it that I almost immediately began to suspect that it is a very personal one to its author - a suspicion, in fact, confirmed by the touching dedication that follows the story's final words.  Simply put, this is a beautiful story.

W.P. Kinsella
The author himself had a hand in choosing stories for The Essential W.P. Kinsella, and fans of his baseball stories and First Nation stories will be pleased with the number of each type chosen for inclusion.  The baseball stories may magically touch on tragic figures such as Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson, but the tales spend just as much time in the low minors with players who are unlikely ever even to sniff life in Triple A ball, much less the majors.  The Indian stories portray the unexpected humor of life on the reservation - humor that is often more of the "sometimes you have to laugh so you don't cry" variety, than not.  There are likely to be surprises for everyone in The Essential W.P. Kinsella.  But those who know Kinsella's work only from his baseball stories are going to get the biggest and best surprise of all. 

Happy Birthday, Mr. Kinsella...and thank you.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Blog Connection Problem Via Mobile Devices?

I noticed something with Book Chase this morning - something that put a bit of a scare into me when I tried to connect to the site from a Barnes & Noble store.  I tried connecting twice, once on an iPad and once on a Kindle, and the same thing happened both times. Within seconds of accessing Book Chase, I was suddenly redirected toward some third party site.  

In neither case, did an actual re-connection happen, but from the looks of the internet addresses shown on the browsers, they were pointing me toward a Chinese site of some sort - and that can't possibly be a good thing.  This has only happened when trying to connect from mobile problems when I connect from my iMac here at home.  

My question: have any of you had that experience when trying to connect to Book Chase from a mobile device?  Have you run into a similar problem elsewhere, by chance?  If so, please let me know because I'm trying to figure out if the problem is in my blogger software or in the operating systems of the devices I was using this morning.  Thanks.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See: Were My Expectations Too High?

As I mentioned it a previous post, it seemed like I had been waiting forever for the library to tell me that my reading copy of All the Light We Cannot See was finally at the library waiting for me to bring it home.  

You might remember that I started in the queue at number 360 way back in mid-September.  My progress on the waiting list was very slow, but fairly steady, and I finally just put it out of my mind completely.  Then one day last week, I happened to notice that I was at number 22.  What could explain the sudden leap...did 150 people, or so, just give up and cancel their request?  The answer turned out to be that the county system allocated more money to purchase additional copies of All the Light We Cannot See and that jumpstarted the waiting line in a big way.  

Just a few days after my first post about the book, it was in my hands.  I started reading it (while continuing on with another book or two) on the afternoon I picked it up, and as of this moment, I'm on page 217 of the 530-page novel.  And I have to tell you that I'm a little bit "underwhelmed" here.  

I'm still hoping that All the Light We Cannot See grabs me in the powerful way that my all favorite novels do, but I'm starting to lose hope as I continue to turn the pages.  Don't get me wrong.  The plot is intriguing, and the book's construction, with the exception of one aspect of it, is clever and effective.  

The one thing I don't like about the book's structure is the endless series of 2-to-3-page segments that alternate between the book's two settings and main characters.  I realize that the two main characters will eventually meet - but I'm beginning to lose patience.  Just when I start to immerse myself in a segment, it's over, and I have to refocus my attention in a way that I find jarring and counterproductive.  

Too, I think it's because of these short segments that I'm having some difficulty in feeling that I know the book's characters very well.  Now, I do "like" several of them, especially Marie-Laure's crazy uncle, Etienne.  But I still don't feel all that warm and fuzzy toward the book's main characters: Marie-Laure and Werner.  

I'm starting to fear that I may have set the bar for All the Light We Cannot See so incredibly high that I doomed it before it had a chance to "wow" me.  Perhaps I would have been luckier if I had come to it completely cold.  Have this kind of thing ever happened to you?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Rick Reilly on the Difference Between Facebook and Reading a Book

As someone who is working hard to wean himself away from the terrible habit of wasting time on Facebook, I particularly love the opening to this promotional video for National Readathon Day (which is tomorrow, January 24, by the way).

For more information on National Readathon day, please click this Penguin/Random House Link.

Preach it, Brother Rick...and for those wondering, I'm managing to limit my Facebook visits to once or twice a day for about ten minutes of browsing, total.  No political posts are read, no religious posts are read, no cute dog and cat videos are watched, no trashy celebrity news is viewed, and I only post a comment or two (if that) before shutting her down.  I'm limiting myself to personal family news, book related topics, and a little music news.  Period.  And my life is so much better for that.

John Bayley Dead at 89

I'm not going to lie and claim that I was much of aware of English critic and novelist John Bayley before I stumbled upon his memoir, Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch, in which Bayley recounts the intimate details of his marriage and life with his more famous wife.  

I happened upon the book in a London bookstore in 1998 and, as I recall, I had read the whole thing within two days of having purchased it.  I was so struck by the utter modesty of the man as he downplayed his own achievements to focus the book almost entirely on his wife, that I came away from it a big admirer of John Bayley: the man, if not so much John Bayley: the critic.   Bayley was the lone caretaker for his wife as she went through the whole downward spiral that is Alzheimer's.  He was there for her from the very beginning...and he was there for her at the end.

Now comes word from the U.K. that John Bayley has died at age 89, and I cannot help but miss knowing that this gentle soul is no longer with us.  

All told, Bayley wrote three memoirs about Iris Murdoch, but I want to quote from the prologue of the last one, Iris and Her Friends: A Memoir of Memory and Desire, because of how perfectly the quote captures the tone of all three of the books:
I can hardly believe it's all over.  At the end it happened so quickly.  My diary says that Iris and I were together, struggling along in the particular way that an Alzheimer's patent and caregiver do, less than three weeks ago.
And then between one day and the next, it became all but impossible to get her to eat and drink.  I coaxed her in every way I could think of, but she seemed abruptly to have given up being a good, if sometimes difficult, child, and became a sadly determined adult.  Politely and smilingly, she declined to open her mouth to have a teaspoon or the edge of a cup put in, as if she had decided it was no longer worthwhile.
Iris Murdoch was a great writer and she had a brilliant mind. Perhaps I shouldn't, but I always feel that Alzheimer's is a greater tragedy for people like her to suffer than it would be for the rest of us more ordinary types (wrongheaded thinking, I know).   Iris was very lucky to have had a man like John Bayley in her life.  

Rest in peace, Mr.  Bayley.  You will be long remembered even by those of us who know you more for what you did for Iris Murdoch than what you accomplished during your own brilliant career as writer, critic, and teacher.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Orphan Master's Son

Most people, I think, if asked to list the “Top Ten Worst Governments in the World,” would find a spot for North Korea’s somewhere in their first five choices.  Even then, however, the problem with trying to rank North Korea within such a list is that everyday life there is still pretty much a black hole to casual observers.  But novels such as Adam Johnson’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner The Orphan Master’s Son often shed enough light on these black holes that outsiders are able to study the horrors within them.

The orphan master’s son in question is Park Jun Do, a boy partially responsible for the relative wellbeing of the orphan boys under his “father’s” authority.  Jun Do, in fact, by deciding where to place the boys in state-mandated work details, ultimately decides which of them are to live longest and under exactly what circumstances most of them will die.  Orphans in North Korea do not have a bright future. 

But this is only the beginning for Park Jun Do.  The boy has certain skills that are valuable enough to the State that his life, may it turn out to be a long one or a short one, is destined to be an interesting one.  Before it ends, Jun Do will have spied for his Dear Leader via the tunnels that penetrate well into South Korea; will have kidnapped unsuspecting victims from the beaches of Japan; and will have learned English well enough to serve both as a translator of radio broadcasts and as part of a diplomatic team sent on a special mission to the U.S.  And when that U.S. mission ends in humiliating failure, Jun Do’s life really gets interesting.

Adam Johnson
The Orphan Master’s Son is told in two parts: “The Biography of Jun Do” and “The Confessions of Commander Ga.”  In the second part, Jun Do proves just what a survivor he is, even within a political system in which a citizen can be denounced for the most trivial oversight – a process that most often places its victims into the hands of ruthless interrogators, only to be later carted off to prisons for the rest of their suddenly truncated lives. 

Jun Do’s life, challenging and painful as it sometimes is, is an adventure that Adam Johnson fits together like a puzzle for his readers.  The author uses three very different narrators to tell Jun Do’s story: a third person narrator for the “biography” portion of the book, a first person narrator in the guise of a rather softhearted State interrogator for much of the second part of the book, and “live” broadcasts via loudspeakers used to spread daily propaganda radio messages to the Dear Leader’s people.  Johnson also uses flashbacks to illuminate details about significant events and relationships in Jun Do’s life well after that character’s ultimate fate has been revealed.

That the structure of The Orphan Master’s Son is not a conventional one may require the reader to work a bit harder than usual, but the author tells a truly memorable and shocking story.  I highly recommend this prizewinner to anyone curious about what daily life in North Korea might be like.