Friday, April 17, 2009

Clearing house and catching up

Clearly I've been lagging in posts for longer than I was actually posting. But in the interest of getting back on track, I've basically just listed here (as much for my own personal record as anything) the books I've read during my blogging hiatus, along with short notes. And now, rather than having the need to catch up hanging over me, I hope to take this as a fresh start and begin posting regularly again.

If you want any more particular thoughts on any of these books, definitely ask -- either with an email or in the comment threads.

Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum

Blum's writing style threw me at first. I'm not used to reading novels in the present tense, especially when they are set at definite points in the past. But for a number of reasons, this book gripped me. Half of it is set in Weimar, Germany (which I visited at the end of February with a dear friend, who also loaned me this book) before and during the second World War, and the rest in nineties Minnesota. Being in Germany while reading this book certainly increased, for me, its poignancy. Blum's dual narrative structure is effective, although I thought she often drew connections between the two too close together, rather than trusting the reader's memory or ability to draw the parallels over a greater span of pages. And once I got used to the tense, it gave the book an immediacy that would normally be lost in the past tense. The ending, too, was about as effective as it could have been. Such stories cannot have a happy ending with all the loose ends tied. But that doesn't mean there can be no resolution -- and I was happy with Blum's final pages.

Tolkien and the Great War, by John Garth

Those of you who know me personally know that I'm a Tolkien nut. And when this book first came out a few years ago, I assumed it was a product of someone writing on the coattails (get it?) of the popularity of Peter Jackson's movie trilogy. But I've recently discovered, through a project I'm helping with, that this book is really quite respected in the academic community. So I bought it. And it's good. If you're a fan of Tolkien, or of 20th century British literature, or World War I history, or fantasy literature, it's worth reading. Garth discusses the development of Tolkien's writing in school, while studying at Oxford, and during and immediately after his service time in the British army, framed in the events of and Tolkien's experiences in the Great War. It's very scholarly, very professional, and the first non-fiction book I've enjoyed in a good while.

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini

Until this year in Germany, I was one of those people who had never read Hosseini. To be honest, I just assumed that his extreme popularity probably meant that he wasn't all I expect in an author. And there are points in both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns that I notice the writing, which to me means that no, it's not perfect. But it's pretty damn close. I would love to see Hosseini write a book that's not set in his native Afghanistan, but so far, he's got something that works. In many ways, I think this book was better than his first. He writes his two main female characters with an understanding and insight that I believe most male authors lack -- which I believe is why they so often shy away from female protagonists. But Hosseini pulls off the wonder, and this book has a plot very much worth reading, to boot.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka

I wanted to like this book. Its cover (not the one shown here, unfortunately) caught my eye (as much as we say we don't, we really do judge books by their covers), and I liked the characters. I really did. But the writing lacked a certain vibrancy that I expected, and could have been there with these characters (a Ukrainian immigrant, his much-younger immigrant wife, and his two daughters who were largely raised in England). We expect something deep from our literature, something deeply revealing about the human spirit or the human condition, and while I believe Lewycka tried to put it there, it just didn't feel natural.

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith

Smith's writing captures the quirks and emotions of each of her characters with a maturity I would expect of one almost twice her age, which some of the more interesting characters are. I still prefer her book The Autograph Man, although this one is (I believe) the more popular of the two. It took me a little longer to get into than I would have liked, but once it grabbed me, it did so like the undertow.