Monday, January 30, 2012

Time Travels

I suppose almost all books are vehicles for time travel. After all, I visited Madame Bovary recently, then moved to 1984 (or some version of it) as I read 1Q84. While I've been reading Stephen King's latest novel, November 22, 1963, which sends his protagonist back in time from the present to 1958 to live for a few years (in a couple of minutes), I listened to a YA audiobook that had come recommended to me at NCTE, Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me. Sure enough, it's about time travel.

In this case, the narrator Miranda is a sixth grade girl in New York City in the 1970s, living through what seems to be minor events in her day as her mother prepares to compete on the $15,000 Pyramid with Dick Clark. A chain of events that occur on her way home from school affects her relationship with friends, classmates, and neighbors.

Throughout the story, Miranda chooses to read her favorite book--A Wrinkle in Time--over and over again, rather than choosing to read anything new. The book connects her to one mysterious character, the boy Marcus, who punches her best friend without provocation on their way home one day, which seems to be a pivotal point in the chain of events. She also finds that her least favorite classmate Julia also loves this book, and the three of them share fascination with the possibilities and repercussions of time travel.

Before I read the book, I was warned that when you get to the end, you feel you need to start over and read it again. I now understand why. If I do take the time to go back through the novel, I know I'll pay closer attention to the titles, all possible topics for the lightning round of Pyramid.

I will wait until I finish the Stephen King book before I even begin to comment on it, but I have noticed that in all three of these books set in the past, I realize how much cell phones and internet have changed our lives.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Not Just Another Desperate Housewife

I'll confess that there are so many classic works of literature that I can't say for sure whether I have read or not, since I know so much about them. Surely I read Madame Bovary at some point in one of my world lit classes (probably the one I recall best from college, with an instructor who obviously kept applying lipstick all day, until her lips looked larger, more clownish than any collagen-injected starlet. The woman often wore sunglasses on top of her reading glasses, and in a throaty voice--the result of her chain-smoking, she would tell us, "Now we're not just going to read the bawwwdddyyy parts," and then she went on and did just that.)

Since I had recently learned of the new translation by Lydia Davis of Gustave Flaubert's classic, I didn't have to think twice when I came across the audiobook at the library. Listening on my way to and from school, I groaned at the woman's self-deluding escapades, at the sometimes vicious actions of her neighbors, and at her poor gullible husband.

After finishing the novel, I still recall some of the zingers--those powerful lines that made me groan or laugh out loud. How much credit goes to Flaubert and how much to Davis, his most recent translator, I don't know. I suspect I will want at least to peruse the book in print. Not a student of French, I find that sometimes the place names, the Alex Trebek-style pronunciation intimidate me. I realize that I might not even recognize some of the cities and towns on a map, something I feel compelled to remedy.

The story maintains a modern feel, despite the period-style clothes and manners. After all, Emma's ultimate downfall and death came from reliance on too-easy credit, living above her means, wanting more that she could afford on her husband's income, and her deception to postpone paying the piper.

With this classic under my belt, maybe soon I will be ready to tackle the newly translated War and Peace. Time will tell.

Monday, January 9, 2012

1Q84: Tengo and Aomame

A good book can get in the way of everything. That's been the story of my life. I'll confess that as a student, I sometimes tucked a novel inside a textbook. I have holed up in the restroom reading or lingered in the parking lot before work with a good book. Last night, knowing I was kicking off the first day of classes this semester at eight o'clock, I still stayed up until midnight--on the dot--reading the last two or three chapters of Haruki Murkami's novel 1Q84. This book is one that made its way to my list when I attended the English conference. It was one of Carol Jago's recommendations. (I remember her saying, It's a big book, but it's a love story!) I kept running into positive reviews, so I threw out the title at book club and those in attendance agreed to tackle it.

I'm not sure about the hardcover, but on my electronic reader, the book had 1452 pages. For me, though, they flew by. The book begins with alternating chapters following two almost-thirty-year-olds, Aomame and Tengo, in Tokyo. She has a regular job as a fitness trainer, and then a not-so-conventional avocation. I won't spoil it for you. Tengo teaches math at a "cram school" but is also an aspiring novelist, but he is an early reader of a manuscript submitted to a first novel contest by a seventeen-year-old that, though poorly written, has a fascinating story. His involvement goes beyond normal--or ethical.

As he title hints, Murakami sets the novel in 1984, the year--once the setting for Orwell's chilling picture of the future, but now part of our nondescript past. The world the characters inhabit, however, seems out of joint. While the story depends on its fantastic elements, the characters engage readers so personally and directly that, like the bodyguard character who hears the details, we find ourselves going along with them.

As I read, I frequently considered how differently the story would have unfolded if set in our modern world, with cell phones and Google. The impact on the plot would have been immense.
How soon we forget the challenge of locating people or finding information in our own lifetime.

There was so much about the novel that I enjoyed--the literary and musical references, the beautifully crafted plot details, woven together like find strands of an air chrysalis (Don't google the term. Read the book.) Something tells me this book, its plot and its characters, will reside in my head for a long time. I wonder if I'll ever look at the moon again without thinking of it.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

What I Read in 2011

Each January, as I compile, or at least revise, my new year's resolutions, I also take down my wall calendar and transfer the titles of the books I read during the year to my Book-Woman notebook, which I've maintained since 1997. I realize that the list isn't as complete as I wish. For example, I rarely list the works I read from the assignments on my syllabus for literature classes. Otherwise, I'd have Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Paradise Lost, and more every year. I notice that I have listed several poetry books this year, but I know without a doubt that I read many more complete chapbooks and full collections of poetry this year. Rather than adding those here, I'll devote another post in a few days to add my favorite poetry of 2011. For now, here's how the list stacked up:

Steig Larsen, The Girl Who Played with Fire.
---. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.
Wally Lamb, The Hour I First Believed.
Heidi W. Durrow. The Girl Who Fell from the Sky.
Patti Smith. Just Kids.
Stewart O'Nan, Songs for the Missing.
Nick Hornby, Slam.
Tim Peeler, Checking Out.
Jane Hamilton, Laura Rider's Masterpiece.
Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire.
---. Mockingjay.

Laura Dave, London Is the Best City in America.
Josh Bazell, Beat the Reaper.
Sharyn McCrumb, Devil Amongst the Lawyers.
Ann-Marie McDonald, Fall on Your Knees.
Glenn Cooper, Secret of the Seventh Sign.
Emma Donaghue, Room.
Helen Losse, Seriously Dangerous.
Sarah Addison Allen, Peachkeepers.
Neil Gaiman, Coraline.
Sioghan Fallon, You Know When the Men Are Gone.
Gary Shytengart, Super True Sad Love Story.
Nancy Horan, Loving Frank.
Paula McLain. The Paris Wife.
Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones, and Butter.
Sara Gruen, Ape House.
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra: A Life.
Ann Patchett, State of Wonders.
Glenn Cooper, Book of Souls.
Steve Martin, An Object of Beauty.
Lisa Genova, Left Neglected.
Nicole Krauss, Great House.
Eleanor Brown, The Weird Sisters.
Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book.
Tea Obrecht, The Tiger's Wife.
T. C. Boyle, The Women.
Silas House, Eli the Good.
Rebecca Hunt, Mr. Chartwell.
Firoozeh Dumas, Funny in Farsi.
Geraldine Brooks, Caleb's Crossing.
Jodi Picoult, Sing Me Home.
Ann Napolitano, A Good Hard Look.
Scott Owens, Something Knows the Moment.
Joshilyn Jackson, Backseat Saints.
William Kuhn, Reading Jackie.
Jessie Carty, Fat Girl.
Malaika Albrecht, Spill.
Lisa See, Dreams of Joy.
Deborah Rodriquez, A Cup of Friendship.
Wes Moore, The Other Wes Moore.
Pierre von Rooyen, Saturdays Are Gold.
Ken Follett, Fall of Giants.
Mark Haddon, A Spot of Bother.
Charles Frazier, Nightwoods.
Jonathan Franzen, Freedom.
Laura Schlessinger, The Care and Feeding of Husbands.
David Sedaris. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.
Hillary Jordan. When She Woke.
Brad Metzer, Book of Lies.
Alice Randall, The Wind Done Gone.
Adam Rex, The True Meaning of Smekday.
Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere.
Alan Bradley, Sweetness in the Bottom of the Pie.

That's the list for the year. I must add one book in progress: I'm just a little over halfway through IQ84, Haruki Murakami's fascinating story set in 1984 Tokyo. The book weighs in at a heft 1452 (at least the electronic version), but that shouldn't discourage anyone wanting an engrossing tale of two lives connected for twenty years--since the two were ten--that intersect in the strangest of world. It's an ideal book to read as I straddle 2011 and 2012. Meanwhile, my list for the coming year is already stacking up.