Feb 23, 2012

Never Let Me Go

Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Published: Vintage International, 2006
288 pages
It's really going to be difficult to write a review of this vague and super-mysterious book without giving away the whole thing, but I really want to get this out there because this is one of my favorite books I've read recently.  Told from 31-year-old Kathy's point of view, it is divided into three parts, which roughly represent her childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
The bulk of the book is Kathy detailing her upbringing and schooling at a very private institution known as Hailsham, where children are raised in a boarding school-type setting by adults known to them as "guardians."  Hailsham has some strange rules and customs, but the children (including Kathy and her best friends Ruth and Tommy) are happy to accept and live with them.  Every couple of weeks, the headmistress of Hailsham comes and takes the children's very best artwork (poetry, paintings, sculptures, etc.).  Very proud of their creative endeavors, the children are mystified by this practice and always wonder why the headmistress takes their work and what she is using it for.
Kathy talks a lot about her relationships with Ruth and Tommy, Ruth and Tommy's relationship with each other, specific experiences from their childhoods, etc.  But what's most interesting about this book is the underlying plot that we only get very subtle hints at every couple of pages.
Through a whole lot of reading between the lines and a few direct clues, the position and purpose of the children at Hailsham is very slowly revealed.  One reviewer called this book "quietly disturbing," and I really can't think of a better way to describe it.
Once I started to figure out the mystery behind Hailsham, I could not put this book down.  I wanted more hints and more clarity, which Ishiguro is extremely stingy with.  It is heartbreaking, disturbing, and deeply moving.  At its heart, it is a realistic representation of how someone actually living in a dystopia might see the world -- no judgment, no hindsight, no foresight.
Anyway, I hope I gave away enough that people will want to read it but not so much that it will ruin the mystery.  I know at least my mom will read it, and I take solace in the fact that when she skips to the last chapter to figure out what's going on, she won't be able to figure it out.  #winning

Feb 7, 2012

Turn of Mind

Author: Alice LaPlante
Published: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011
307 pages

This book has been ALL OVER book review magazines, websites, etc. and I knew I had to read it as soon as I read the description.  It gets 4.5 stars (out of 5) in Amazon.com customer reviews, which is really outstanding for a book that also did extremely well in critical reviews.  I think what makes this book such a standout is the unique perspective (which critics love), combined with the thriller-type story line (which non-critical readers love).

The perspective is unique because it is a first-person account of someone with dementia.  Dr. Jennifer White is a (formerly) prestigious hand surgeon afflicted with Alzheimer's.  She has good days, where she knows who and where she is, and she has very bad days, where she gets confused and runs away, violently lashes out, and gets depressed about her failing mind.

It is slowly revealed that Dr. White's best friend Amanda was found murdered in her house with some of her fingers surgically removed, and Dr. White is the primary suspect, for obvious reasons.  On some days, Dr. White has barely any recollection of ever even knowing Amanda, but on other days the reader is given hints into Dr. White and Amanda's sometimes rocky and volatile friendship.  Some other key players are Dr. White's children, a son and daughter, who go back and forth between being supportive or overbearing and at times trying to take advantage of Dr. White.

At its heart, this is a mystery book that puts the reader in a sometimes very frustrating position because you have to follow along with a story that comes from a diseased mind.  Dr. White's reality changes from day to day, and bits of the mystery are revealed very gradually in between her "bad" days.  This book would not have been the same if it followed a typical third-person narrative style, and I think LaPlante did an incredible job of putting the reader in the mind of an Alzheimer's patient.

Overall, I think this is a book most people would enjoy.  It's a really quick read, and very different from the typical third-person mystery narrative.  If you're looking for something to read and you don't want to feel like you wasted your time reading a book that you hated, this is a pretty sure bet.

Jan 5, 2012

A Small Hotel

Author: Robert Olen Butler
Published: Grove Press, 2011
241 pages

OK so I've been pretty busy lately, but it's time to get back to this blog business.  I read this book over the summer, and I'm pretty embarrassed to admit that I read it because I saw it on a book list in Oprah's magazine.  I'm swallowing my pride because I think this is an interesting book with a unique perspective and language.  It's pretty dark and depressing, and we all know that's my thing, so here it is!

The protagonist of this book is Kelly Hays, a middle aged woman who is in the midst of a divorce with her husband Michael Hays.  Before finalizing the divorce papers, she travels back to New Orleans to stay in the hotel she and Michael frequented in happier times.  The narrative travels between Kelly, who is sitting in a hotel room by herself, and Michael, who is at a traditional Southern "ball" with his much younger new girlfriend.

The history of Kelly and Michael's marriage is revealed through the both happy and painful memories interwoven throughout the narrative.  We learn about all their issues, for example: her childhood, spent trying to gain the approval of her emotionally detached father... surprise, surprise.

It's interesting how it all ends up, but really it's just a portrait of a complicated relationship that is falling apart at the seams despite two people's efforts to keep it together.  It's not idealized or overly romanticized, and I enjoy that type of reality.  It reminded me very much of the movie Blue Valentine, which I loved, and not just because of Ryan Gosling.

Anyway, maybe the next book I post won't be so depressing.  But don't count on it.

Sep 24, 2011

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Author: Aimee Bender
Published: Anchor Books, 2010
292 pages

IIIIIIIIIIIIIII'M BAAAAAACKKKK!!!  After a long summer of reading way more books than is normal, I am going to start tending to my blog again.  I'm going to start with this one because I really want someone else to read it.

This book is written from the perspective of Rose Edelstein, a very average girl with the very above-average ability to taste emotions in food.  She discovers her ability rather harshly, after biting into her birthday cake and tasting her mother's contempt, dissatisfaction with her marriage, and overall sadness (hence, the title).  Rose continues to experiment with different types of food, and the book moves quickly over the span of about 15 years, during which time Rose never really does anything interesting or noteworthy, except for tasting her mother's affair.

The strangest part about this book is Rose's brother Joseph, who Rose looks up to as a kind of genius.  Rose starts to notice he disappears every now and then, and when he reappears he is totally exhausted, and nobody knows why.  When he goes away to college, he becomes extremely withdrawn and inaccessible.  Then one day, Rose goes to check on him and she walks into his apartment and sees......

Sorry, I can't tell you what she sees because I'm dying for someone else to read this book so they can tell me what the hell they think goes on.  Because I still haven't figured it out.

I don't know what it was about this book that made me unable to put it down.  It seemed so average and mundane, but I was enthralled.  I can't say it any better than the San Francisco Chronicle reviewer who said, "Few writers are as adept as Bender at mingling magical elements so seamlessly with the ordinary."  That's exactly what it was.  It was a realistic portrait of a slightly strained family with the tiniest fantastical elements that made it a mystery, but still familiar and comfortable.

I am definitely going to see what else Aimee Bender has to offer.  Also, first person to read this book and tell me what they think gets a batch of cookies!

Jul 25, 2011

Ship Breaker

Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Published: 2010, Little, Brown and Company
323 pages

Take a look at those medals on the front cover of this book!  The gold one is the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.  The silver one signifies that it was a finalist for the National Book Award.  I first mentioned this book in my post about the ALA Youth Media Award Winners, and I was really excited to see what it had to offer.... Sooo let's take a look...

The book takes place in the future in the American Gulf Coast region, where all the old oil tankers of today have been stranded on the shoreline and are only valuable for their metal innards.  Nailer, a teenage boy who works for a particularly harsh boss, spends his days crawling through the ducts of the oil tankers scavenging for copper wiring and his nights worrying about whether he will make it through the night with his drug-addicted, murderous father.

After a rough storm one night, Nailer discovers wreckage from one of the beautiful, expensive sailboats he always admires out on the horizon.  In the wreckage is an extremely rich girl, and Nailer must make the decision to simply give her up to his father and the rest of the violent ship breakers or try to protect her.  If he didn't try to protect her there wouldn't be much of a plot, so I can tell you now that Nailer runs away with her to "the Orleans," which has been decimated by a series of hurricanes, so she can find her rich family.  Nailer and the girl are bombarded with life-threatening obstacles and adventures in the course of their journey, and that is pretty much the whole book.

To be honest, I really expected more from a book that received sooo much praise from the literary community.  I was largely unimpressed by the characterization and the plot.  The most impressive part was the setting, with Bacigalupi painting such a clear and imaginative (but still semi-believable) future that it was hard not to get sucked in.  On the other hand, I wish he went into more depth about some of the finer details.  There is something called "the Life Cult," for instance, mentioned several times in the book that he just never really explains.  At first I thought he was just trying to keep it mysterious, but then it just got annoying.

I think this book would make an incredible movie, and when it's made into one in the near future, you can all thank me for introducing you to it first.  The imagery is fantastic and I actually felt as dirty and sweaty as Nailer when I was reading about him crawling through the ducts of an old tanker.  That also could have been the 110 degree weather we've been having, but I'll give Bacigalupi the credit.

P.S. Don't read it.  Wait for the movie.