Wednesday, July 30, 2014

2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

I received this book in exchange for an honest review through Blogging for Books.

Summary: Madeleine Altimari's mother is dead, and the world is a tough place for the brash nine-year-old kid, who is an aspiring jazz singer. Bravely facing down mean-spirited classmates and rejection at school, Madeleine doggedly searches for Philadelphia's legendary jazz club The Cat's Pajamas, where she's determined to make her on-stage debut. On the same day, her fifth grade teacher Sarina Greene, who's just moved back to Philly after a divorce, is nervously looking forward to a dinner party that will reunite her with an old high school crush, Ben Allen, afraid to hope that sparks might fly again. And across town at The Cat's Pajamas, club owner Lorca discovers that his beloved haunt may have to close forever.

My thoughts: Philadelphia, if I'd known the setting of the novel, lived there and recognized the street names, and the mood, this book would have been something else. It's is a very atmospheric read, and Bertino knows just how to tickle your senses with her words. The book begins with a snowfall:

Snow flurries fall in the city. Actors walking home from a cast party on Broad Street try to catch them on their tongues. The ingenue lands a flake on her hot cheek and erupts into a fit of laughter. In Fishtown a nightmare trembles through the nose and paws of a dog snoozing under construction flats. The Rittenhouse Square fountain switches to life with a pronouncement of water while Curtis Hall musicians, late for final rehearsal, arpeggiate through the park. 
The flurries somersault, reconsider, double back. The alleys of 9th Street bear witness as they softly change their minds.

2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino is just what the title promises, a novel made up of cozy warmth and chirpy, quirky characters. It's a light read, the kind of book you'd finish in a day and savour through the next, a perfect travel companion. Even its corniness has a charm.

The last time Gus sees Alessandra is through the elbows and arms of her brothers and sisters who force themselves in between them. 
That's a drummer's love story. If you want a prettier one, you'll be waiting forever. If you could separate your body into four distinct rhythms, you'll be cracked too.

But under all its wry quirkiness, the book has a poignant message. Each character is a real person, with their faults and failings. Madeleine is a jerk, a smarth-mouthed, prank-pulling, arrogant jerk, who'd have had her own gang in school had she not hated to be around other kids so much. Sarina Greene is awkward, obsessive and paranoid, plagued with little concerns and self-doubts. Jack Lorca is about to lose his jazz club, his girlfriend and has not only lost but never managed to make any connection with his son. Three lives, and more, converge at 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas and you realize that the story is about bad things happening to bad people, and bad people trying to be good. It's about people who've made mistakes, people who haven't been their best trying to improve, to make good on promises. Because, even jerks have mothers who die. 

Cat's pajamas - that's what brings these odd protagonists together, literally and otherwise. Google helped me out right when I got the book, cat's pajamas refers to a great new thing or more specifically here - and please correct me if I'm wrong - a person who is the best at what he does. Madeleine is an amazing singer, the nine year old Blossom Dearie fan is self-taught and inspired by her dancer mother and practices with a diligence that we're unlikely to associate with spoilt brat who sneaks her mother's smokes. Sarina Greene for all her idiotic clumsiness really cares about her students, is passionate and has suffered enough losses in her life to be wary of appreciation. Jack Lorca has practically given up on his club, his girlfriend and his son, and it makes him miserable. It's the last night of his career, The Cat's Pajamas will be shut down if it stays open after 2. A.M. Nostalgia, melancholy and love - the author knows how to express each.

His father is already dead by the time Lorca reaches him, beer unspooling around him, eyes fixed on some fascination under the bar. Lorca gathers him in his arms.
Gathers him in his name - Jack Francis Lorca.
We carry our ancestors in our names and sometimes we carry our ancestors through the sliding doors of emergency rooms and either way they are heavy, either way we can't escape.

Not wholly ironically, I did find faults in the book. The meandering story, the present tense narration and the flitting points of view are not for everybody. The book could have done without a few characters and the stories within stories, though endearing, give it the aura of a short story collection. The cover title "2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas, a novel" suddenly seems to be trying to prove a point. 

I love magic realism when it works, but this abruptly fantastical ending just isn't one of those times. Its incongruity only makes me a tougher judge of the rest of the book. The end is not the place to experimental with a new style. The last impression, if unfairly, matters most. And mine is more of an "Eh!" than I wanted.

You can pre-order this book here

Friday, July 25, 2014

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

I received this book in exchange for an honest review through Blogging For Books.

Summary: In a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night and then set fire to her home. When their lifelong neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded. 
For Sonja, still haunted by the disappearance of her sister Natasha, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate.

My thoughts: Marra's story is driven by the setting and the characters. The story plays out in five days, but also spans the decade of the Chechen Wars, the flitting timelines circle the string of coincidences that bring Sonja, Akhmed and Havaa together. It is a walk through war and peace and brittle Chechnya itself becomes a central figure. The book uses language to add character, Chechen of course, Russian which sets Sonja and Natasha apart, Arabic which Havaa fumbles with and the English of London, where Sonja leaves her fiance to search for her sister; words of love, madness and the silent language of a man's hatred for his son. The dialogue is masterful and achieves what vivid descriptions don't always, creating both a tie and a sinking distance between you and the people of the story who seem all the more real in the detail. 

Eight year old Havaa has never seen a fat person; Natasha doesn't ask a dying man his name for fear that he will die and she will be left with just a name; when Ramzan, the informer, feels like a criminal, he reminds himself that a land without law is a land without crime; when the Feds torture the prisoners, it is understood that pain, rather than information is the true purpose of the interrogation; Khassan burns his life's worth of writing, his only book, because he wants to be forgotten.

How often does a novel make you feel that its fictional characters must be thankful to the author for telling their story? How often do you find a novel that has no judgment, where the author has carefully extricated himself from the book and has let the characters monopolize your mind? Ever read a book that shows you a man teaching his six year old daughter how to use a gun on one page and on the next, makes you laugh at a man who knows no world beyond his village and thinks Ronald McDonald is the president of America? How often has a novel made you feel insignificant, shown you the worst of times and the spark of hope in them? How often does a book make you feel, with its unabashed honesty, like a voyeur? Like you're prying on things too difficult and courageous, too complicated for you with your simple past to comprehend?

Rarely, that's the answer. You rarely find a book that achieves all of that. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra is a really good book. It makes you grateful to be in your world, and will make you stronger in the face of your problems. But as every really good book must, it feels more genuine than the real reality you're in and despite all its horrors, you'll find yourself dragging your feet when it tries to send you back. 

Favourite quotes: 

(Havaa and Akhmed eat their first meal, a hunk of dry black bread, after Havaa's father's abduction)

She ate quickly. Hunger was a sensation so long situated in his abdomen he felt it as he would an inflamed organ. He took his time, tonguing the pulp into a little oval and resting it against his cheek like a lozenge. If the bread wouldn't fill his stomach, it might at least fill his mouth. The girl had finished half of hers before he took a second bite.
"You shouldn't rush'" he said. "There are no taste buds in your stomach." 
She paused to consider his reasoning, then took another bite. "There’s no hunger in your tongue," she mumbled between chews. Her cupped hand caught the crumbs and tossed them back in her mouth.

(Sonja, making a doctor out of Akhmed, the gentle artist.)

She needed another set of hands, no matter how fumbling and uncertain they might be. Not that she'd admit it to him. She had to harden him, teach him that saving a life and nurturing a life are different processes, and to succeed in the former one must dispense with the pathos of the latter. 

(Khassan and his fleeting affair with the love of his life, Mirza)

She praised his book and he embraced her from gratitude rather than lust, but she didn't let go. Neither did he. She kissed his cheek, his earlobe. For months they'd run their fingers around the hem of their affection without once acknowledging the fabric. The circumference of the world tightened to what their arms encompassed. She sat on the desk, between the columns of read and unread manuscript, and pulled him toward her by his index fingers.

I agree with the Washington Post review of the book, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra "is a flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles."

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Why I end up liking everything J.K. Rowling writes

A few days ago I came across a bookstore, fed my incessant book greed and bought these two. Then I spent a day wondering whom I'd rather start with from my two favourite writers. 
I couldn't decide which to read first, but I went with J.K.
When I read The Casual Vacancy, I commented that we could never really know an author and their works aren't everything there is to say about them. No Harry Potter book could have made me think that was coming, and I enjoyed that new way of looking at an author I was so convinced I knew

The Silkworm has made me realize something about J.K. Rowling and my intense love for all her writing - no, I'm not a Harry Potter fan claiming I like everything she writes just because. It's how involved she is in all her works. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is probably not a story to her, but a whole world happening inside her head, into which she allows us selective peeks. That would explain the gossipy Rita Skeeter article about the Quidditch World Cup I was told she published recently. The criticism goes: it was too short a glimpse through too unreliable a narrator. I would like to believe Rowling didn't sit down to write the story for the occasion but that the occasion wrote itself - which is to say that everything that takes place from the fight at Hogwarts to the seventeen years later (and after that) does actually play out in her head, and she chooses when to let us in. I mean, I doubt all the Pottermore stories were created just for the website.

In much the same way, the world of Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling and The Silkworm, the life of ex-Army detective Cormoran Strike, is a story inside her head. As must be the life and work of Robert Galbraith. Rethinking over it now, I don't think the pseudonym was a gimmick - I think a woman who has so many stories playing in her mind, such a vivid imagination, must have loved to write as another person, a man in fact, and enjoyed putting herself in the shoes of a first timer writing their debut book. 

And that's how I end up loving everything Rowling: be it the Harry Potter series, The Casual Vacancy or these newest mysteries, for all our expectations and suggestions - she should have stuck to Harry Potter, it is too gross, dark and full of "language", I wanted it to be magical, what was she thinking? - I don't believe she writes for us, she writes because she loves stories. And it is evident in the detail and the effortless switches of genre (though no self-respecting Harry Potter fan would say the books were just that: fantasy.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Top Ten Favourite Completed TV Shows

For this week's Top Ten Tuesday, the topic is favourite stories that are not books. There's no point, I think, in including shows that are still ongoing, because you never how they'll turn out (and my favourite movies are too many to list.) So this is a list of TV series that I diligently watched and loved till the end. 

1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

2. Gilmore Girls

3. The Wire

4. Friends

5. ER

6. The Tudors

7. Fringe

8. 30 Rock

9. Charmed

10. Firefly (not exactly completed, was it?)

Did you watch these? Which are your favourite TV shows, ongoing and completed?

(Update: I just read the comments; I'd always assumed few people loved Buffy, because no one I know really does - but I'm so glad to be proven wrong.)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

London's Book Shaped Benches - Why am I not there?!?

The title says it all. I don't think I've ever wished harder I lived in London. Books About Town is a project launched by the National Literacy Trust where 50 literary themed benches illustrated by local artists have been strewn across the city for summer, to be auctioned later in the autumn. These are my favourites:

The Librarian bench (Discworld by Terry Pratchett)

Earnest bench (The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde)

Peter Pan bench (Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie)

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe bench (The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis)

The Jeeves and Wooster Bench (the Jeeves series by P.G. Wodehouse)
Aren't they delightful? I borrowed these pictures from the official Books about Town website, where you'll find the pictures of all the benches. Of course, there are these pictures submitted by people who stumbled across the benches throughout the city, which are way more fun as long as you can keep yourself from turning green. 

It gets more fun: Guardian lets you vote for the book to feature on the next bench, the 51st. The choices range from the 101 Dalmatians to Adrian Mole, and Harry Potter, who needless to say is in the lead - you can change that with your vote, though I will have you know, I didn't! Anyway, are you thinking what I'm thinking? I know, this has brought me whole new ideas about bookish furniture. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less by Jeffrey Archer

Warning: This review contains spoilers, but so does the prologue, and the back cover blurb. You might enjoy it if you don't read either of the two, but then again, you might not - the book is not very good. Honestly, a combination of the prologue and the cover blurb summary would have, with minor edits, worked as a short story, a deeply plotted flash fiction. But that's about it.

I don't know what I was thinking when I decided to give Jeffrey Archer another old college try. It might have been how just about everyone I know repeatedly refers to him as a genius storyteller and what not. But you know what, there are too many well written books in this world to waste time on this. Okay, I'll take you through the story and make you agree.

First we are served an enlightening prologue: a man named Harvey Metcalfe pulls some important sounding strings, a stock crashes and four men abruptly become penniless. For future reference, I'm going to call this E.W.A.K, short for, everything we already know.

The book begins with a sly, sneaky delivery boy named Henryk Metelski. Sound familiar? In about two pages he changes his name to Harvey Metcalfe. Harvey does a truckload of interesting illegal stuff becoming a millionaire, and (surprise, surprise) still not satisfied. He decides to invent an oil company that appears promising to make a profit off it for himself... read the book if these details interest you, the author can't get enough of them. E.W.A.K is right around the corner. Basically, Metcalfe needs a fall guy, whom all the shady activities of the company would lead back to, and for that he chooses someone named: David Kessler.

Enter: (Ta da!) David Kessler. This chapter focuses on what happens to David Kessler that leads up to what you were already told about in the concluding line of the previous chapter. David Kessler meets four guys and convinces them to buy the stocks of this new company he has started working for. And eventually, slowly, E.W.A.K happens.

The first guy is Stephen Bradley, an Oxford professor, who has a very long, mildly interesting back story. The second guy is Robin Oakley, he's a doctor, so there's that. The third guy is Jean-Pierre Lamanns, a stock-character French art dealer in fine, fine clothes. The fourth guy is called Lord James Brigsley. So then finally, the stock crashes, and all that has happened sixty pages into the book is this: E.W.A.K. Everything we already know from that moronic prologue.

Over the next few pages, Stephen discovers E.W.A.K. A Detective Inspector arrives and together, they discuss E.W.A.K. Then Stephen Bradley invites the other three guys to dinner. He tells them E.W.A.K. They are very shocked by E.W.A.K.

There you have it - 3 frustrating hours reading 162 pages of what the prologue already mentioned. So here I think - Why I don't I read what the next 200 pages are going to be about from the back cover blurb? I mean, what could happen? BAM. Worse happens.

Let me introduce you to: E.W.A.K.#2. The back cover of the book with utter dumbness states the following.

Their plan: find Harvey, shadow him, trap him, and penny-for-penny, destroy him. From the luxurious casinos of Monte Carlo to the high-stakes windows at Ascot to the bustling streets of Wall Street to fashionable London galleries, their own ingenious game has begun. It's called revenge - and they were taught by a master.

Um, the back of the book, let me remind you, fabulous publisher, must not contain spoilers.

For the next couple of hundred pages, we have a lot of winding discussions leading up to E.W.A.K.#2.

I don't know if it was Archer himself or his poor editor wife who discovered the nothingness that the book contains and decided it needed a twist ending. A classic out-of-nowhere twist ending that is too annoying to deserve more than a passing mention. It has something to do with James Brigsley's suspiciously unnecessary love interest Anne.

You call this masterful storytelling? Okay, allow me to go kill myself. Wait... how could I sign off without mentioning Archer's beautiful writing and how he employs it to make insightful observations, like Robin Oakley and his wife in bed showing us how doctors think of sex:

He clambered in beside his fragrant silk-clad wife and ran his finger hopefully down her vertebral column to her coccyx. 
'You'll be lucky, at this time of night,' she mumbled. They both slept.

Actually, I won't have to go kill myself after all. I just died laughing. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Ransom by David Malouf

Reminiscent of: Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

Summary: The Iliad begins with Achilles, the Greeks' greatest strength, refusing to fight for them, for Agamemnon, who insulted him. But he is the only one who can defeat the Trojan prince Hector. One of the greatest stories of The Iliad is Achilles' final vengeful slaughter of Hector, his darkest moments that follow, and King Priam's daring un-kingly attempt to ransom his son's body from the cruel Achilles. The unlikely meeting, of the aged father and the murderer of his son, in the middle of a Greek camp, at the centre of an unending war, makes a beautiful story of loss.

"If the last thing that happens to me is to be hunted down in the heart of my citadel, and dragged out by the feet, and shamelessly stripped and humiliated, so be it. But I do not want that to be the one sad image of me that endures in the minds of men. The image I mean to leave is a living one. Of something so new and unheard of that when men speak my name it will stand forever as proof of what I was. An act, in these terrible days, that even an old man can perform, that only an old man dare perform, of whom nothing now can be expected of noise and youthful swagger. Who can go humbly, as a father and as a man, to his son’s killer, and ask in the gods’ name, and in their sight, to be given back the body of his dead son. Lest the honour of all men be trampled in the dust.’'

My thoughts: So: did I mention I've been on kind of a Troy-high lately? I'm halfway through the Robert Fitzgerald translation of The Iliad and have been catching up on my Greek mythology; reading novels based on the Trojan war, because there's no better way to learn stuff than through stories. Last week, I wrote about The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It's a book full of glamour and passion, but this book is the complete opposite. I'd read and appreciated Ransom by David Malouf before, but this reread has me inspired. This book is amazing. Brilliantly composed. 

The author adds character to the myth, life stories and feelings. We see Achilles in the ruthlessness that even he can't comprehend. Angry and impulsive Achilles who leaves the war, then rejoins it to avenge his friend's murder, kills Hector and mercilessly drags around his bones for days to follow. But he's burning inside; even as the Myrmidons begin to resent their leader's bold cruelty, we find him not cruel, but pitiful.

And then we see Priam, ransomed from slavery by his sister through Heracles, we meet his sons and daughters and Hecuba, his Queen. Ransom is about a King - a symbol - and about the man behind that image, a man who finally breaks through to do right by his son. In a time when all was left to the will of the Gods, we see the one man who took fate in his hands, a ruler who exercised his free will and set out to plead to his enemy, Priam who put his life in the hands of chance. Guided by Hermes, in a cart drawn by mules, belonging to a poor stranger, Priam sees the real Troy for the first time. 

And the story is also about the cart driver, a stranger who is hired to play the part of Priam's herald for one journey, an old man whose views about the world make all the difference to Priam's actions, an old man who witnesses in one night a great chunk of history and, throughout his life, even after the fall of Troy, retells it to a thousand disbelieving ears. His presence in this novella makes you wonder about stories and the true truth. It reminded me of Odysseus's speech in The Song of Achilles about how there is no telling who earns immortal fame and whose glory is lost in time.

Masterfully written, Ransom by David Malouf is packed with wit and emotion. It's 5/5, incredibly highly recommended.

In his own world a man spoke only to give shape to a decision he had come to, or to lay out an argument for or against. To offer thanks to one who had done well, or a reproof, either in anger or gentle regret, to one who had not. To pay a compliment whose decorative phrases, and appeals to vanity or family pride, were fixed and of ancient and approved form. Silence, not speech, was what was expressive. Power lay in containment. In keeping hidden, and therefore mysterious, one’s true intent. A child might prattle, till it learned better. Or women in the seclusion of their own apartments.

But out here, if you stopped to listen, everything prattled. It was a prattling world. Leaves as they tumbled in the breeze. Water as it went hopping over the stones and turned back on itself and hopped again. Cicadas that created such a long racketing shrillness, then suddenly cut out, so that you found yourself aware once again of silence. Except that it wasn't silence at all, it was a low, continuous rustling and buzzing and humming, as if each thing’s presence was as much the sound it made as its shape, or the way it had, which was all its own, of moving or being still.