The Secret of Lost Things: Perhaps too much of a secret?

February 29, 2008

I was excited when I found The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay in the library because it was supposed to be a literary mystery, and I enjoy books about books and book/author mysteries.  Unfortunately, this book was not very good. 

The ridiculously naive Rosemary leaves her Tasmanian home after her mother’s death and moves to New York.  She stumbles across the Arcade, a unique bookstore, and recognizing it as a surrogate for home (her mother’s friend owns a small bookstore and Rosemary helped out in it), she manages to land a job there.  The bookstore appears to have very little organization and is peopled with eccentrics.  Walter Geist, the assistant manager, is an albino.  The cashier is a transexual waiting for “her” operation to make her sex change official.  The employee in charge of the art section likes to fondle himself while looking at nude pictures in the store.   Rosemary, who apparently knows nothing about anything, falls in love with co-worker Oscar, who has no time for such a mundane thing as love.  As if reading about the employees’ oddities wasn’t enough, a mystery about a purported lost manuscript by Herman Melville falls into Rosemary’s lap, entangling her, Oscar, and Walter in a quest to find it.   Ultimately, tragedy prevails.

This book was NOT very good.  First of all, I couldn’t believe Rosemary’s gullibility.  Her innocence was too much.   Yes, she lived an isolated life in Tasmania, but for a supposed bookworm, she knows nothing about reality and the cruelty of man to his fellow man.  What kind of books was she reading?  I almost said fairy tales, but fairy tales can be grim.  I think the book was supposed to be set in the present, yet it had a much older vibe to it. 

And I loved how easy it was to figure out what Melville’s lost manuscript could possibly be:  hey, let’s go to the public library and read some of his letters to Hawthorne.  Maybe they will contain a clue!  And so a naive girl and a bookstore employee identify a lost manuscript from Melville’s letters that Melville scholars had somehow managed to overlook.  One explanation for how easy it was to solve the mystery is that the manuscript, The Isle of the Cross, actually existed but truly was lost after Melville’s publisher rejected.  That helps a bit, but gee, if only all literary mysteries were so easily solved!  

Nothing in the book felt real.  The characters seem too contrived and too eccentric.  The only character I felt sorry for was Walter Geist, the albino.  I guess he had to be an albino because it’s a Melville mystery and Rosemary reads Moby Dick?  And Geist must be reviled and hunted like the whale?  I agree with other reviews that said that Melville was the most well-drawn character in the book.  Hay excerpted his letters, and he really came alive.  

If you like literary mysteries, I recommend the following instead:

  • Possession:  A Romance (Byatt)
  • The Club Dumas (Perez-Reverte)  or see the movie adaption with Johnny Depp:  The Ninth Gate
  • There are also about a million books (e.g. Interred with Their Bones,  The Book of Air and Shadows) about various Shakespearean lost manuscripts or who really is Shakepeare, but none of them are very good in my opinion.

American Creation: The Founding of a Nation

February 26, 2008

I am behind in posting thanks to a couple of busy weeks. Expect two posts from me this week.

American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic by Joseph J. Ellis provides a look at six pivotal moments in America’s founding between the War of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase.  These moments present both successes and failures or missed opportunities, including the necessity of a strong central, national government, the development of the two-party system, retaining slavery and the Native American issue.  Many of these moments could be seen as both successes and failures depending on your perspective.

I highly recommend this book. Ellis is a great historian and a good writer who manages to explain the issues clearly.  If you know very little or even nothing about American history, you could pick up this book and understand some of the key moments during the roughly 30-year period the book covers.   Some chapters were easier to read and more interesting than others, but it’s clear that a lot of care and research have been devoted to each part.

What I enjoyed most was getting glimpses of the founders’ personalities.  One point that Ellis (and John Adams) make early in the book is that the founders are, well, human.  Yes, these were obviously well-educated men (in most cases) who managed to make something wonderful out of a moment in time, but they are not deities.  They have flaws, petty grievances and weaknesses just like everyone else.  There seems to be a tendency to deify the founders, something with which the founders themselves would have disgreed vehemently. 

It was a bit disconcerting for me to discover the founders’ ordinariness as I read since I am a product of a public school system that glorifies the founders as almost preternaturally wise men.   As a matter of fact, I am having some serious cognitive dissonance over Thomas Jefferson.  I, well, I’m not sure if I like him very much anymore!  What a strange man! However, it is good to have these glimpses of their personalities.  I think it would be easier to discuss constitutional issues and intent if we had a more realistic perception of the men who created the Constitution. 

Also recommended:  Founding Brothers:  The Revolutionary Generation (also by Ellis).

The Post-Birthday World: What If?

February 18, 2008

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver is about Irina McGovern, a children’s book illustrator living in London with her long-term, intellectual boyfriend Lawrence.  One year Irina and Lawrence go out to dinner with a children’s book author with whom Irina works and her husband Ramsey, a famous professional snooker player, on what turns out to be Ramsey’s birthday.  Over the next few years, Irina and Lawrence maintain the friendship with Ramsey, getting together with him every year on his birthday until one year when Lawrence is out of town, Irina decides to go to dinner with Ramsey alone.  Surprisingly, Irina finds herself drawn to Ramsey and longing to kiss him.

The rest of the book tells what happens after that moment.  She kisses him, and one future unfolds.  She doesn’t kiss him, and another future unfolds.  Told in a parallel structure, the events in one future are played with, altered slightly and told from another perspective in the other future, and the book explores what implications how and who we love have on us. 

I was intrigued when I read the description of the book, but I sort of wondered if the premise wasn’t a bit hokey.  Haven’t we been there, done that with this type of book? How many mediocre movies have dealt with this idea? Was this book going to be a little bit like those cheesy books from junior high that told the story from the girl’s point of view but switched to the guy’s when you flipped the book over?

Most emphatically, emphatically not I assure you.  This book was great.  I’ll admit that there were parts of the book that dragged, and it’s a long book since you are dealing with the same span of time and certain pivotal events from two perspectives.  When I finished the book, though, I put it down and went, “wow.”  It was stunning.  Shriver is a masterful writer who takes a convention that could have fallen apart at so many points and keeps the strands of both lives going.  I can’t imagine the preparation it took to keep the events straight so that she could twist them for the parallel future.  So impressive and clever.

And who among us hasn’t wondered what if?  Who hasn’t pondered the road not taken?  Who would I be if I had gone to another college instead of my alma mater?  Would I have the same life?  What I liked about this book was that Irina’s possible futures have different outcomes both professionally and emotionally but the basic events are the same.  I think we like to imagine that a decision made differently would have tremendous effects upon our life (e.g. date that guy, become president of the United States; date the other guy, live in a hovel).  It’s often not that simple or black and white.  Not to say that Irina’s life isn’t dramatically different whether she kisses Ramsey.  It is.  But it’s within the realm of a normal life.

Shriver’s characters were amazingly well drawn.  It amazed me how she could make one character so sympathetic in one future and such an asshole in another.  I found myself wanting to mix-and-match characters and futures for Irina to achieve happiness.  One question I asked myself many times after I read this book is whether Shriver has a clear preference for one future over another or whether there is a message there.  I think there is…maybe just a little bit.  I think that one of the futures allows Irina to experience life fully from the extreme lows to the extreme highs.  She loves and is loved.  She finds professional fulfillment.  This future doesn’t end well, but I think she would rather have experienced that future with its highs and lows than the other future which seemed to bring her nothing but lows.

Eat, Pray, Love: A Skeptic Converted

February 12, 2008

When you read a lot, you quickly discover that most of the books out there are simply not very good.  I don’t think that I have unrealistic expectations or standards that are too high (perhaps wanting a coherent plot and decent character development is asking too much?), but books that are truly great (in my opinion) are few and far between.  Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I read two books in the last week that I would classify as great.

The first and subject of this post is Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.  I had resisted reading this book because I have a perverse aversion to books that everyone is reading.  I also roll my eyes at the proliferation of memoirs…apparently everyone’s mundane life is worth writing about.  Yeah, yeah, yeah…pot, meet kettle.  After all, I apparently believe that my mundane book reading is worth writing and reading about!  Let’s just say that memoirs aren’t a genre I read much of. 

Eat, Pray, Love details how the author, Elizabeth “Liz” Gilbert, saves herself by finding herself.  She supposedly has the perfect life…big, beautiful house and wonderful husband, yet after many dark nights of the soul sobbing on her bathroom floor, she realizes that her life is not what she wants.   After a horrible, ugly divorce that drags on for years, Liz is finally free, yet shattered, and she decides to break completely with her old life by traveling for a year.  She spends four months in Italy (eat), 4 months in India (pray) and 4 months in Indonesia/Bali (love), and the book recounts her experiences and epiphanies during that time.

Gentle Reader, I confess that I am a convert.  This book was amazing.  First of all, Gilbert is a phenomenal writer and born storyteller.  I marveled at how she constructed her sentences and the perfect metaphors she used.  She made her story come alive.  I had wondered what I could possibly get out of a book about a rather privileged, divorced woman, but her story was relatable…not the divorce part necessarily…but her struggles.  Her struggle to know herself, heal herself and ultimately love herself after her personal tragedy was very relevant to me.  Like Liz, I too seek some connection to the divine, and I was fascinated by her time in India and what she learned there.  I hadn’t expected the book to be so spiritual.  I don’t think she intended her book to be a self-help book, but I learned many things from it that I plan to use in my own life.  I also appreciated that Liz put it all out there.  She was brutally honest and didn’t hold back.  She told the good and the bad about herself and her experiences. 

Wow.  Just wow.  I feel like Eat, Pray, Love is a book that I will read again and need to read again–maybe many times–in order to catch everything.  My only criticism of the book is that I didn’t think that the “Love” section in Bali was as good as the other two sections.  It fell a little flat and seemd to end rather abruptly.  That’s ok, though.  There are 108 chapters in the book, and it’s divided into three parts.  Whenever I notice that a book has 100 chapters or more, I always wonder about a connection to Dante’s Divine Comedy…another book with three sections and 100 chapters.  It’s probably a stretch, but it was an interesting thought with which to amuse myself.

So, I highly recommend this book.  In fact, I give it my highest praise:  I’m going to buy a copy.  I borrowed a copy from a coworker, but I think I’ll buy my own.  It is definitely a book I want to reread. 

The Society of S: X-Men Meets Anne Rice

February 7, 2008

When I’m in the library, I like to browse.  I am a firm believer in serendipity, which I like to define as “something wonderful found.”  I had hoped that The Society of S by Susan Hubbard would be classified as serendipitous but unfortunately not. 

Hubbard’s protagonist is Ariella, a precocious 13-year-old who has been isolated from the world in her huge Victorian house by her preternaturally young, brilliant father who does mysterious work in his basement with his employees.  Instead of letting Ariella go to school, her father homeschools her, teaching her himself.  I daresay her education exceeds that of most college freshman.  She also has synesthesia, which sometimes manifests as seeing letters and words as having a certain color (one of the reasons why I picked up this book; when I was younger, I associated colors with letters and numbers). Poor Ariella has no friends until the housekeeper takes pity on her and integrates her into her own boisterous family, where Ariella finds a best friend as well as first boyfriend. 

However…Ariella’s life is full of mysteries.  Why does her father appear not to have aged?  Why did her mother disappear only hours after Ariella’s birth?  Why does Ariella’s image look blurry in pictures and mirrors?   After a horrific murder and learning a dark secret about her father, Ariella heads south to seek her mother, discovering not only her mother but also herself.

Yes, thar be vampires here.  But not just any vampires!  Hubbard’s vampires are different from the Anne Rice type. These vampires are eco-conscious vegetarians and don’t necessarily need to drink blood to survive.  And there are more of them than we could ever imagine, blending successfully into society.  Hubbard intriguingly weaves science into vampire lore, dismissing some vampire powers as myths and explaining the “science” behind other powers. 

Hubbard writes well, and Ariella had a strong voice.  I really enjoyed the tone of the book as well.  It was haunting, quite moody and a little dark…like a song played in minor key.  She does a good job of making Ariella’s life interesting and bringing you into the mysteries surrounding her.  So why such a tepid review then?  The problem is that once you solve the mystery of her father, the novel goes flat.  An unsolved mystery is always more interesting than a solved one.  I applaud Hubbard’s efforts to try to ground vampirism in science, but that takes some of the fun out of it.  We like scaring ourselves into thinking that there may be a vampire out there who “vants to suck your blood.”  As a result, the conflict in the book is left to be weakly hinted at as a vampire faction who believes humans should be exterminated and those who think that vampires and humans can live in harmony.  Sort of.  Like I said, it’s only hinted at. 

Apparently, The Society of S is the first in a series, so maybe the subsequent books will flesh out the story more.   

If you like vampire books, you might enjoy The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series (the early books; there is WAY too much sex in the later books and it’s off-putting…seriously, more sex than plot.  I enjoy a romance novel as much as the next person, but come on).

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict: Title Says It All

February 4, 2008

Someone should ban me from the library while I have unread books at home.  I stopped by last Friday to pick up an ILL (inter-library book) and took a few minutes to peruse the “new” bookshelf where I stumbled across Confessions of  a  Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler. 

Rigler’s book is about Courtney Stone, the titular Jane Austen addict, who is recovering from a failed romance in present-day LA and wakes one day to find herself no longer in her own body but in the body of an unmarried Regency woman named Jane Mansfield (yes, really.  HA Ha ha – guess it’s not really that funny).  While in Miss Mansfield’s body, Courtney comes to appreciate the difference between reading a book about delightful characters set in the Regency period and the limitations, restrictions, and realities that a Regency woman would have had to navigate, including clothes, courtship, etiquette and attitudes.  Courtney must also try to figure out how to get herself back to her own body and life in LA.    

Rigler is a dedicated member of the JASNA (the Jane Austen Society of North America), and it shows.  As I read the book, I wondered if its plot or parts of its plot had been developed out of some JASNA meeting or session.  Does JASNA sponsor fan fiction?  It occasionally seemed like there were a lot of in-jokes.  Overall, I was rather underwhelmed by the book.  It’s a cute idea, but the characters were flat and one-dimensional.  The plot also seemed a tad light.  Courtney-as-Jane is supposed to solve the important mystery of whether the eligible Mr. Edgerton is a scoundrel or worthy of her love, but there was no depth to the storyline.  Rigler did a better job of helping the reader picture what life might have been like in the early 19th century as far as using a chamber pot, eating, dress and transportation. 

 I also became tired very quickly of the Jane Austen references (sacrilege?).  When troubled, in need of a boost or just plain bored, the heroine rereads Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice.  Yes, I GET it!  You are a Jane Austen addict, and apparently no other authors exist.  The book also contains a painful (to the reader) meeting between the heroine and her idol.  It was this scene in which Rigler’s authorial voice came through the strongest and indicated that there was a point she was trying to make about Austen’s fiction and movie adaptations.

Despite the criticism, Rigler is a pretty good writer.  Her prose was clean and flowed well.  It’s just everything else that was weak.