books 2010

Jan. 29th, 2010 12:57 pm
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[personal profile] nixy
I always mean to keep track of what I read, and this year I will actually do it.*

Book I technically read at the end of last year, but liked well enough to report on it anyway:

The Piano Teacher by Janice K. Yee

There are two stories here, one taking place during WWII and the other ten years later. I still have questions about whether the 10-years-later story could have been subsumed into the WWII story with the same effects. I think I mean subsumed—like, the 10-years-later story could just disappear, and the services it provided somehow be worked into the main story, which is the WWII story.

They were pimping this book hard at Borders for awhile, which automatically turned me off of it. Reading the first little bit (which is part of 10-years-later) didn't get me excited. However, I had to read SOMETHING on the plane and this seemed the least objectionable of my choices.

This is a love story between a British man and Eurasian woman in Shanghai just before it's overrun by the Japanese. Everything I know about the conflicts between China and Japan during WWII has been gleaned from fiction (J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, for one, and some horrid book that had passages about Nanking, for another), but it seems that the Japanese pushed depravity to a new level in the process of conquering. Anyway.

The 10-years-later story is that of a British woman arriving in Shanghai with her husband, Mr. Boring-Dullerson, and learning the story of the WWII love affair in bits and pieces while she has an affair with that guy. See why I wonder if she could have just been removed entirely? She was a device, and worked well as a device, but was otherwise a dull and unlikeable character. I didn't hate her, but I did not care what happened to her in the least, so long as she did her device-like work and kept on serving as audience for the wonderful,sad WWII romance.

I'd recommend it because of the main story, and I'd be interested if anyone else who has read this feels the same. I've gone over and over it in my head trying to figure out how the author could have told the romance story without needing Device!Lady and I've come up blank. The way the romance is told in bits and pieces adds greatly to the drama, and a straight telling would lose all of that. Telling it in bits and pieces without the framework of Device!Lady would just seem scattered and I'd probably be complaining about how the story was full of holes. The end of the book would have required a complete rewrite without Device!Lady, so I guess she's necessary, but I'm just really opposed to her for some reason.

Would recommend YES, and especially if you'll talk to me about the issues I have with the story structure :P
 The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Oh, how I loved this book. I passed it up multiple times in the bookstore but found it for an exceptionally low price at the used bookstore—it was about $5 less than other books of similar publication date and condition for some unknown reason—and decided to give it a try after all.

I was expecting Harry Potter for grown-ups, and it's not entirely unlike that, but it has a different tone, goes more into setting up a theoretical world of magic, and uses an imaginary, Narnia-like series beloved by most of the characters as a pivotal element in the major plot lines. The characters are people you've met in some version or another in other stories, many times over, but the magic-school setting makes them interesting—no, fascinating—again. A plus for me, anyway: the character I found most uninteresting does an about-face and becomes very compelling, which makes the dullness prior to that point interesting after all.

I wish I wrote this book. Some of you (okay, exactly one of you) may recall that I have been working on a book that includes magic in an everyday setting, among other things, and I'm both inspired and disheartened by The Magicians, as it uses a lot of details that are very similar to (occasionally identical to) what I'd already written and now I feel like I have to change them. Oh, well. I really liked this book. Like, really.

Would recommend? Oh, YES.
 Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld

I am technically not done with this yet—about a third of the way through the 4th and final book. This is a YA sci-fi series about a future Earth where the City-states perform plastic surgery on all citizens when they reach age 16 to make them “pretty.” They then embark on a life of superficial pleasure, etc., etc. They're tractable cattle, basically. Some of the “uglies” (AKA 15-year-olds and younger) question the need for the pretty surgery and look for an alternative way of life in the Wild.

There are a LOT of things that I have questions about, mostly to do with the City-states and how they sustain themselves, since everyone is a bubblehead participating in endless birthday parties rather than a productive member of society, though I'm possibly meant to assume that when they become “Middle Pretties” instead of “New Pretties” they get shunted off into various jobs. I haven't read it yet, but there's a separate book about the world the author has created and this may explain some of these things.

I don't love this series as much as the person who recommended it to me does, but it was entertaining. It was hard for me to engage much with any of the characters, partly because I didn't particularly like them, and partly because they're not all that well-developed. Opinions and feelings and preferences come up only as they are necessary for the plot, and I just like to know a lot more about people if I'm spending a whole book—or, in this case, an entire series—following their stories. Despite the first three books being entirely about her, I still feel like I don't know much about Tally Youngblood. The 4th book follows a girl named Aya Fuse who, surprisingly, is a much more well-rounded character than Tally ever was, and it has definitely increased my interest and enjoyment.

Giving away more details would kind of ruin the books, but I can say that I wouldn't hesitate to let a kid/YA read them. They're full of ideas and questions about social behaviors but don't strongly dictate any particular point of view—the characters don't always make the right choices, or for the right reasons, though it usually comes down to a positive message about self-acceptance.

Would recommend? yes, for a tween or teen, albeit without great enthusiasm

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell

A former mob thug, now a doctor in the Witness Protection Program, is identified by a former associate who checks into his hospital. The mob comes after him, and he, obviously, does not want to be caught. I was able to suspend my disbelief about the FBI sending a former mob enforcer to medical school—a requirement for enjoyment of the story—in part because the main story is so engaging. There's lots of snappy dialogue and dark humor, even gruesome humor, to go along with the chase-story suspense.

It's one of those odd books that doesn't fit any particular genre—it's not a standard thriller, but neither is it weighty enough to qualify as literature. The quality of the writing is high but the re-readability is almost nonexistent once a person knows all the plot twists. This is the kind of book that is ideal for Kindle/nook/reader devices—worth reading, but not worth shelf space. The publishers seem to have gone with a literary angle, fwiw.

Would recommend? Yes, especially if you have a reader thingie.

Just Kids, Patti Smith (Yes, that Patti Smith)

This is the story of the rockstar/poet's lifelong friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. She's known for her words, her songs, many of which are very confrontational, so I was quite surprised by the demure and retiring nature of much of the text. She's so circumspect about drug use that one comes away with an impression of the 70s art-rock scene being about as edgy as a kid's birthday party. Despite how this sounds, I'm not actually complaining.

Oddly, and previously unknown to me, Patti started out as a visual artist and switched to words/performance pretty late in the game. Amusingly, and probably inadvertently, her descriptions of her own drawings do not make a person want to look at them, nor do her descriptions of Mapplethorpe's pre-photography works—lots of collages and installations that sound kind of pathetic. They both come across as rather clueless and to have been in the right place at the right time just about a million times rather than having any focus, ambition, or ability to create opportunity. It's an awfully sentimental journey, two innocents bumping up against the world like balloons and, amazingly, not popping.

The words are lovely, if obviously applied only to very selective memories. She apparently promised Robert that she would write this book, and now she's done it, and I'm not sorry I read it, but I'd hesitate to recommend it to anyone who wasn't interested in Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, the 70s NYC art scene, or life in the Chelsea Hotel. For those people (like me), this is a must-read.

(I am still nursing a niggling and ridiculous jealousy that she had a sexual relationship with Jim Carroll who I always thought was hot, hot, hot, and who borrowed my pen at a reading to sign everyone else's books. He's dead now, and I don't know from what--my guess would be drugs or drug-related problems.)

Would recommend? Maybe. See above.

*at least for a little while, until I lose track of time again, like always, and forget to post and become overwhelmed. But, here at the beginning, the plan is in place and I have hope that this time, magically, I will be able to sustain awareness/attention over a full 12 months.

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