Wednesday, February 28, 2007

February round-up

February is generally considered a good reading month around these parts. Between illness—sometime mine, usually my children—and weather, one is often housebound and forced to read. Not such a bad thing. Thumbing through the list of books I have read (since 1993), 2004 must have been a banner year for sick or for cold or both. In February of that year, I set a PR (for you nonsports folk that's personal record), finishing seven books.

This year, I managed to finish five books, and I'm pretty pleased. Here's what I read:

The Peril of Paella by Nancy Fairbanks, a lighthearted foodie mystery set in Barcelona
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, the sweeping mystery set in Barcelona (full disclosure: I've been reading this in fits and starts since June '06)
Blue Arabesque by Patricia Hampl, a long essay about art that I read for book group
Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary, which I read aloud to the boys
The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which I listened to on audio during drive time

The first two on the list are technically shelf-sitters (
Perils since this past summer; Shadow since I received an advanced reading copy in 2003), and the last two were library impulses.

Announcing the Tournament of Books

While it's too late to vote for the readers choice—Zombie—round, you can still read Kevin Guilfoile's opening remarks and begin to anticipate the literary world's own awesome March madness!

This year's list of candidates is outstanding. I've read half of
Arthur and George; I just finished The Road; and I can't wait to see which book(s) make my TBR as a result of this competition (Atkinson, Powers, Shteyngart, and Messud are already on it).

Who will have had enough time to read the Pynchon?

2007 contenders:
Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
One Good Turn, Kate Atkinson
Arthur and George, Julian Barnes
Brookland, Emily Barton
English, August
, Upamanyu Chatterjee
The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford
Pride of Baghdad, Niko Henrichon, Brian K. Vaughan
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud
The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, Peter Orner
The Echo Maker
, Richard Powers
Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon
, Sam Savage
Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart
Alentejo Blue, Monica Ali
Apex Hides the Hurt, Colson Whitehead

Monday, February 26, 2007

I've never faked it*

but I've thought about it plenty, especially when feeling tired or uninspired. I'll bet you've thought about it too.

Now, there's hope—and an ambitious** French guy to thank.


* In the interest of full disclosure, I have faked it at least once. I only managed to read 50 pages of Bleak House for that Dickens tutorial I took junior year in London, but wrote a paper about it nonetheless. Even though I passed with flying colors, I don't think I fooled my tutorial adviser.

**Oxymoron alert. Pierre Bayard, a literature professor at Paris University, has devised a useful system for talking about books that you've never actually read. Here is his inspiration: "We are taught one way of reading," he said. "Students are told to read the book, then to fill out a form detailing everything they have read. It's a linear approach that serves to enshrine books. People now come up to me to describe the cultural wounds they suffered at school. 'You have to read all of Proust.' They were traumatized."

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Progress report

The temperature has been exceedingly cold here in Minnesota—subzero, with and without wind chill. Of course, the only true recourse is hibernation. I opt to go outside as little as I can—going to and from work and running the occasional weekend errand. I would rather hole up under a pile of blankets and read than brave the elements to ice skate or sled or ski.

Both of the boys have been sick over the past few weeks, never at the same time. As a result, I have managed to read quite a bit on all my sick days. Last week I finished The Shadow of the Wind in an epic three-and-a-half hour reading session, the likes of which I haven't experienced on a regular basis since the boys were born. And, it felt so good to just read and read and read, to arrive at the last twenty-five pages at midnight and find the stamina to keep going. Of course, it helped that those last twenty-five pages were the culmination of a gripping two hundred page section. The pacing of this literary bestseller was a little odd—the first half was haltingly slow, while the second half galloped at a break-neck pace.

Over the weekend I polished off a chunk of Heat, Bill Buford’s account of cooking in Mario Batali’s kitchen, which reads, not surprisingly, like a big, juicy New Yorker article. Then, I test-drove a new book for fifty pages, and I’m hooked. It’s Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork, a first novel set in Thailand, involving missionaries, demonic possession, taboo sex, and murder. I have yet to get to the parts about demonic possession and taboo sex, but you know the anticipation is compelling.

My book group meets tomorrow, and I’m trying to finish the book we’re reading—Blue Arabesque by Patricia Hampl, a slim meditation, inspired by a Matisse painting, on the odalisque in art. Not only is it boring, but the author is a little insufferable, but I think she had good intentions when she wrote it. I also started listening to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road during drive time, and one disc in, it’s sparse and unnerving.

Next up: Girls of Slender Means for the ongoing Muriel Spark discussion I am having with my friend Caryl.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Perils of Paella

For the past eight or nine years, I have been stoking my interest in Spanish food, drink, and culture. Last summer, John and I threw a tapas party. We renewed our desire to travel the Camino de Real by bicycle. And, I purchased The Perils of Paella, a culinary mystery set in Spain, by Nancy Fairbanks.

Our amateur sleuth is Carolyn Blue, a food columnist for an El Paso newspaper. Carolyn accompanies her husband to Spain. While he is presenting an academic paper, she travels to Barcelona to visit her friend Robbie Hecht, a visiting researcher at a Miro museum. Before the friends even have a chance to meet up in the museum, Carolyn stumbles across a dead body and naturally becomes a part of the investigation.

The mystery is told in the alternating voices of Blue and of Inspector Pujol. The mystery is standard fare, which is exactly what I was hoping for in a quick read. The characters were just this side of addictive. I liked centered Blue, who riffed really well off of feisty Robbie. Pujol was very likeable. The chorus was a host of stereotypes—Latin playboy husbands and their jealous wives, American husbands who attempted to keep their adventurous wives on short leashes. Still, a humorous mix.

Like Diane Mott Davidson’s culinary series starring caterer Goldy Schulz, food plays a central role in Fairbanks’ mysteries. Recipes are included throughout (and, they’re far less intrusive than in Davidson’s books).

I’d happily read another mystery from this series.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Water for Elephants

Before Water for Elephants was published by Algonquin Chapel Hill last May, a number of friends expressed interest in it. Each of them had heard industry buzz from booksellers, who were reading galleys, but I wasn’t sure what about the book intrigued them. In December, a coworker handed me a copy and said, “This book reminded me of why I read.” Even though I avoid popular or hyped books and even though I’m trying to stick to the books on my 39 list, I thought I’d give the first chapter a read over my lunch break.

Sara Gruen’s easy-going storytelling sucked me into the novel. For the length of my lunch break, I was engaged in nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski’s reveries of running away with the circus when he was twenty-one.

Young Jacob’s parents have died in a car accident (I mentioned in an earlier post that this was a common, and annoying, devise in fiction this past fall) the week before he is to sit his veterinary exams at Cornell. Unable to write his exams, and having learned that his parents had mortgaged their home to pay for his education, Jacob realizes he has nothing. So he does what any confused young man in the Depression Era would do—he jumps a train heading out of town.

Later, he discovers that the train is carrying the Benzini Brothers circus, which, with nothing to lose, he then joins. Conveniently for Jacob the circus needs a vet and it falls upon him to care for the menagerie. Soon, the seedy underbelly of a second-rate circus is revealed to Jacob. Behind the performers’ shiny satin-and-sequins costumes is a grimy operation where animals are often fed rotten meat, the hierarchy of workers is brutal, and the owner is prone to having workers chucked off the train in the middle of the night.

It isn’t long before Jacob falls in love with Marlena, who performs with the horses and with Rosie, an elephant that understands only Polish, acquired from a competing circus. Of course, Marlena is married, which is problematic in and of itself, but her husband August is a paranoid schizophrenic who abuses the animals as well as Marlena.

Water for Elephants is a completely engaging read, especially if you long to be transported to another world or to simply experience comforting nostalgia. My circus memories were vividly rekindled. When I was in elementary school, the Ringling Brothers Circus came to town annually. Performed in the high school gym, the event was full of dazzle and daring and hot buttered popcorn and fluffy pink cotton candy.

The story’s ending, heavily criticized in many reviews, was, I thought, pitch perfect.