Feb 10

February 2010 Books

February 1 2010

Birthday Stories
edited by Haruki Murakami

This is a set of stories all about, yes, birthdays. They’re all stories in English that were translated into Japanese, but re-issued again in English. I thought this was a pretty good way to organize an anthology, especially because Haruki decided to write little musing English-teacher introductions to each story, which I found oddly endearing. Like: “Trevor’s work is notable for its precision of style and complexity of vision,” and “It is a very weird piece. Needless to say, I too would like to have a tail if possible.” I’m sure you would, Haruki, and who could blame you? The best story (written by an American who married an Italian aristocrat) is about an American woman who gets her Italian aristocrat husband two prostitutes for his birthday. I loved this: “Many of the men there had indulged in American wives, as they had indulged in German automobiles.”

February 2, 2010
Love And Obstacles by Aleksander Hemon

This is a set of interconnected stories, set in Bosnia, Congo, America, and Canada (with a side trip to Slovenia, I think), about a kid from Sarajevo who is studying in the States when the war breaks out. I liked the language very much, here, although I’m sort of hard pressed to say why, exactly. The main character seemed a little hollow to me, but not in the sense that he wasn’t well-written or well-realized: I mean I think that’s who he is, as a character: hollow. I thought a lot about how completely uninformed I am about so many political and social issues; this made me want to learn a lot more about the history of Eastern Europe and Slavic languages. He describes one characters vowels as being as soft as the underside of a kitten’s paw–love it.

February 6, 2010
Valeria’s Last Stand by Marc Fitten

This was a quick read, about life in a small post-communist Hungarian village where everyone seems to be scowling determinedly at blemishes on the market vegetables, reflecting on the nature of global capitalism, crying into their beer steins because their fields of sugar beets have been over-irrigated, or having lots of swidgy bum-pinching affairs with their close neighbours. I loved, for example, when a sixty-eight year old woman tells a sixty year old man, after he’s rocked into town on his bicycle from 1902 to sweep the town’s chimneys (really), “Hey, look, just because we spent a week in bed DOESN’T MEAN WE’RE TOGETHER, OKAY?” There wasn’t much of a plot, and there was a bit too much telling instead of showing: “Valeria thought about it, and the thought of growing old with someone beside her instead of the few tired animals who were really her only friends seemed to make a certain kind of sense to her.” Well, okay then, story’s over then, right?

February 15, 2010
The Great Lover by Jill Dawson

(I am trying so hard not to start off this paragraph with “This is a biography of me, as the title would indicate.” No one likes a braggart).

Anyway, what this is really about is an early twentieth-century English poet called Rupert Brooke, who was a real guy about whom I knew nothing and who was apparently pretty hot in a sexually-ambiguous-upper-class-Englishman-who-writes-poems sort of way…so in other words, HOT LIKE THE SUN. Ahem. Anyway, in this fictionalization of his life, we mostly get to hear him rambling on about what it means to be An Artist (apparently it means someone else subsidizes your steady diet of buttered scones and schoolboy flirtation), interspersed with the perceptions of Nellie The Maid, whom he finds to resemble some sort of glorious Diana Of The Hunt and they go skinny-dipping and everything but also he doesn’t think she’s smart enough to ever understand what it means to be An Artist and he’s sort of embarrassed that she had to wash out his sheets after he spent the night with one of his mates from prep school. I always like class-tension upstairs-downstairs stories (see also: my love for Gosford Park and Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood–whom I now follow on Twitter!) so I enjoyed this is as well, and, predictably, liked Nellie’s country-girl snarkiness about the various Bloomsbury toffs swanning around and asking for more tea please, there’s a girl. There’s some stuff about the suffragist movement and socialism, and then Rupert goes abruptly mad for a while and has to take some sort of apparently very unpleasant Treatment at the Asylum, and then he goes to Tahiti and meets a beautiful Tahitian girl and then I think he gets drowned at sea, later, but the Tahitian girl has a baby so it’s all cool. We actually hardly even see the Tahitian girl, which is sort of a shame—I liked the two chapters set in Papeete very much and wish the book had been balanced a bit more between there and high-tea-on-the-lawn-in-cricket-whites Cambridge. All in all a good story, though, and it confirms my desire to be a bluestocking as well, so that’s all to the good.

February 20, 2010
A Long Time Ago And Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka

This is a story about Poland: Old Poland and New Poland, basically—the plot jumps between wartime 1940s Poland and modern-ish now-ish Poland, about neither of which I know anything, so I appreciated the level of detail about everyday things, like old timey houses and weddings and modern Krakow milk bars and street parties and things like that. I dug the scenes at the Western Hipermarket, too, and how everyone who goes in there is sort of shell-shocked at all the choices available. I liked the modern-times narrator (whose nickname is Baba Yaga, awesome) very much—by the end of the book I was really gunning for her, like, “That crazy kid, she’s going to make it after all!” Her story was a really good depiction of what it feels like to be sort of restless and waiting for the rest of your life to start while hoping that it hasn’t happened yet, that it hasn’t actually started and that the good parts are yet to come. I’m realizing more and more that that is a very difficult thing to capture in prose—I think it’s really easy to make that sort of thing sound sort of brittle and false and unmeaningfully self-conscious– so I appreciate it very much when I see good examples of it. I also appreciated the descriptions of the English-speaking expats who work as language teachers, “with their poor hygiene and their defaulted student loans.”

February 23, 2010
Blame by Michelle Hunever

I really liked all the descriptions in this book, which is about a privileged white woman who is sent to prison for involuntary manslaughter in the early eighties. The prison life scenes were really well done, I thought, and I also really got into the various parts of the story that involved caring for someone with a terminal illness, falling in love with someone completely inappropriate, and living in a big house with lots of money as a sort-of trophy wife. There’s a scene when, years after the protagonist has been out of prison (and was offered a professorship at my alma mater, which I found exciting because no one ever knows anything about my lovely little socially responsible hippie school) and her step-daughter, who is only a few years younger than her and has become this sort of Whole Foods uber-mom, passive-aggressively crashes her baby food strainer or something on the gorgeous new soapstone counters and says “Oh, your counter,” in this nasty self-righteous way that you can just totally hear, you can totally see the scene. I only wish this book was longer—the end of the book felt like the end of the second act instead of the end, and I really wish I knew what else happened to everyone. That’s kind of a good thing, though, when you feel that way about a story, so I wasn’t sorry to feel it at all.