Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Invisible Circus

I'm becoming quite the fan of Jennifer Egan - just read her first novel, The Invisible Circus (1995) and previously The Keep and Look at Me.

The Invisible Circus is her first novel (she's got some short stories too), and was made into a movie with Cameron Diaz (I haven't seen it). It's about a young woman whose sister committed suicide about six years before. She's sort of living in the shadow of her vivacious sister's life and death. In a sudden burst of energy (I don't think I'm ruining it) she decides to follow the footsteps of her sister and her last few months in Europe, ending at the place of her death, in an effort to solve the mystery of how she could have killed herself.

The story takes place in 1978, with flashbacks to older sister's involvement in the scene in San Francisco and Europe in the '60s. Egan creates a vivid sense of space and time. One of the major themes of the book is nostalgia, and, she's brilliant at it - I felt a nostalgia for a time I'd never experienced just reading it.
"The weird thing about that time," he said, tentative now, "is in a way we were nostalgic for it even while it happened. I htink it had to do with constandly watching ourselves, on drugs, the whole out-of-body thing, but also on TV, in the papers. We were news. Whatever we did felt so big, so unbelievably powerful, almost like it was happening in retrospect. I've never felt anything like that, before or sinse. It wasn't real life. Which I guess is what made it great."
Like Look at Me, this book also deals with identity as well, in this case, the younger sister's discovery of her own personality outside the definition of herself as created in and by her family.

I'd recommend it - it was really great.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I, Robot

We read I, Robot for book club. Its a set of short stories originally published in 1950 by Isaac Asimov, and it represents a couple of "firsts" - husband claims it's the first time the word "Robotics" is used, and, also, Asimov presents his famous "Three Laws of Robotics". Each of the stories explores the three laws - it's really rather brilliant, because Asimov invents these laws, and then proceeds to challenge each one of them. Many of his arguments come down to semantics, for example, as you may know, one of the laws is that a robot may not harm a human - and then tells a story about a robot who causes all sorts of trouble because he's unable to hurt anyone's feelings. Oh ho ho.

Well, if you're looking for a nice intro to some classic sci-fi, I, Robot is a great place to start - everyone in book club agreed that it's very accessible. Our family copy is from The Complete Robot, a collection of all his robot/human short stories published between 1940 and 1976. BTW, if your cover has Will Smith on the front and you're wondering what the stories have to do with the movie - nothing!

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Recently re-read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in preparation for the movie. Side note: tried to convince husband to dress us as Mr. and Mrs. Weasley with me but prospect does not look good. It's sad.

Harry Potter fans will have read The Half-Blood Prince back in 2005 right after it was released, so I'm not going to worry to much about spoilers. Rowling's 600 page book, the 6th in the series, did not disappoint. I loved the role that Dumbledore played in this one, becoming more and more of a peer to Harry and so respectful of his friendship with Hermione and Ron! My fave part was probably where Dumbledore goes to retrieve Harry from the Dursleys - when the Dursley's greet him with their regular behavior:
'Judging by your look of stunned disbelief, Harry did not warn you that I was coming,' said Dumbledore pleasantly 'However, let us assume that you have invited me warmingly into your house. It is unwise to linger overlong on doorsteps in these troubled times.

He stepped smartly over the threshold and close the front door behind him.

'It is a long time since my last visit,' said Dumbledore, peering down his crooked nose at Uncle Vernon. 'I must say, your agapanthuses are flourishing.'

Agapanthuses? Hilarious!
'I don't mean to be rude -' he began, in a tone that threatened rudeness in every syllable.

'-yet, sadly, accidental rudeness occurs alarmingly often,' Dumbledore finished the sentence gravely. 'Best to say nothing at all, my dear man. Ah, and this must be Petunia.

Just like Dumbledore is Harry's stand-in for the perfect parent/grandparent, I found myself wishing he was my guardian too, swooping in and giving the old what for to my proverbial Dursleys.

I remember (the first time) reading the book and being so surprised by the ending - and then the rather wonderful thrill of asking everyone - have you finished yet? - so that you might quietly talk about whether you thought Snape was truly on the dark side or not. Everyone was so respectful (with the exception of this jackhole) of other fans' experiences. I miss the fun of like, the whole world reading the same book - I hope we see something similar again one day!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge is this year's Pulitzer Prize winner - I find Pulitzer winners to be a great bet, with the exception of The Road, which I have no intention of reading.

Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge is quite a fine book that reminded me of Empire Falls, even All Creatures Great and Small (but not in a cheesy way). It's the stories of many people in a small, new England town, and Olive is a woman who kept surprising me. I felt that I never knew who she really was, which was kind of wonderful, because she ages quite a bit throughout the book. I love it when authors explore the idea, even as they create a character, that identity and personality are fluid. Olive is a heart-breaking woman - usually never referred to by others or herself without referencing her size or her lack of style. Like the mother in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, she's an imperfect character - she's not exactly likeable, but you hope the best for her.

Stout's writing style is not extravagant, but her prose is simple and beautiful. Several times I literally burst into tears just... instantly.

Some favorite passages:
She had lived through a lot of things with this country, but she had never lived through the mess they were in now. Here was the man who looked retarded, Olive thought, remembering the remark that was made by the woman in Moody's store. You could see it in his stupid little eyes. And the country had voted him in! A born-again Christina with a cocaine addiction. So they deserved to go to hell, and would.

...He would not let her go. Even though, staring into her open eyes in the swirling salt-filled water, with sun flashing through each wave, he thought he would like tis moment to be forever: the dark-haired woman on shore calling for their safety, the girl who had once jumped rope like a queen, now holding him with a fierceness that matched the power of the ocean - oh, insane, ludicrous, unknowable world! Look how she wanted to live, look how she wanted to hold on.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


For book club, we decided to read a romance novel upon the suggestion of C. who read a few for a class on popular lit., along with an article on romance novels ("Bodice Rippers", I like to call them, based on the usual cover art): "Reading is not eating" by Janice Radway (Publishing Research Quarterly, Volume 2, Number 3, September, 1986).

The chosen book was Brazen, by Susan Johnson. I don't suppose I'll go into a long explanation of the book aside to say that it followed the usual formulas of the strong-willed, sexually unfulfilled woman who falls for the seemingly unattainable Kit Braddock and they soon find themselves in an illicit love affair that threatens both their lives! (This is in contrast to the other formula of the innocent young woman who finds herself the unwilling object of desire to the local rogue - contains rape scene.) No one in our club, except, uh, myself had ever read such a book before and all were quite shocked by sex scenes therein ("It's PORN!" said G.).

I did not enjoying Johnson's writing style, and the sex scenes were kind of oogy - mainly re: all the inane dialogue and repetition of the word "cleft". Also, every time Kit and the Countess engaged in the ol' vaginal/penile, Kit would pause: Am I hurting you?

The vagina, as everyone knows, is a rather remarkable body part capable of astonishing elasticity. Most of us know that a small human can be squeezed through its walls; it can certainly accommodate the penis of Kit Braddock.

Radway's twenty year-old article was a really interesting exploration of the women who write and read romance fiction. I believe her goal was to illustrate that women who read these types of books form a community and have more forward beliefs than the books typically illustrate (basically your standard issue white, hetero-normative, patriarchal hierarchy.) While she was not able to support that suspicion (only that some woman may have had what you might call a "community" by the purest, simplest definition, but certainly not anything fulfilling or supportive), she surmised that the women had the fullest potential of creating such communities and being a force of active change within their social spheres. (Of course, you might argue that everyone has that potential...) But what was really interesting to me was that both writers and readers considered themselves feminists for reading the books and that the subjects therein were feminist triumphs as well.

Naturally, everyone's definition of "feminism" is a little different, but I found it rather alarming that something that absolutely operated within the confines of a patriarchal system (both the story itself and the capitalistic structure of the mass-produced paperback) was interpreted as "feminist". Far be it from me to get up in someone's grill when they think they're a feminist and I don't, but it was very curious indeed.

Anywho, all that lead to a really interesting conversation about Marxism and the replacement of real interaction with goods, and the question of how the internet breaks down some of the tenants of Marxism by providing a mostly free place for people to share book recommendations. I'll even bet there's now a lot of those communities of women (And men! Apparently men are reading these novels too!) Radway was looking for - blogging about their Bodice Rippers (I hope someone will correct me and tell me it's "Historical Fiction") and maybe even planning the next cultural revolution for us! (I hope so!)