Monday, February 19, 2007

Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Simply put: haunting and gut-wrenching.

A man and his young son traverse the ashen wastelands of what was once America. Nuclear holocaust has devastated everything save a few roads and the occasional farm or abandoned city, and the two nameless protagonists move relentlessly westward in the hopes of reaching the ocean coast, all the while scavanging for food and shelter, or avoiding cannibalistic marauders.

Unlike McCarthy's masterpiece, Blood Meridian, there is no cast of colorful characters, no gruesome episodes of seemingly senseless violence, and no satanic Judge Holden from which to ascertain a moral (?) center. The Road is richly poetic despite its simplicity of style, and the "adventures" (such as they are) show a noticeable depth of character in both man and son as the narrative progresses. And while this is hardly the "feel good" book of the year, it remains surprisingly hopeful in the face of all that you, as a reader, suspect will happen by novel's end.

It took me about one full day to read this novel. It will grip you firmly about the neck during the reading, and linger with you long afterwards ...

Most powerful thing I've read so far in 2007, quite frankly! Check it out.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk

Here's a book that I finished last week for February's Biblioholics Anonymous gathering. It was quite an enjoyable read!

Palace Walk may seem like an antiquated throw-back to the great Victorian novels of old, with its brilliant evocation of a faraway setting and its exotic characters. Yet it tells a compelling story -- that of Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, respected middle-class merchant to friends and acquaintances, but fiery-tempered patriarch to his own family. The novel, which is actually Book One of Mahfouz's "Cairo Trilogy" and is set in Egypt just after WWI, centers around al-Jawad, a highly traditional husband and father who maintains strict control over his family by way of the Qur'an while joyously seeking the pleasures of nightly trysts and carousing with friends. When his subserviant wife Amina dares to leave the house one day during his absence to visit a local shrine, she is involved in an accident that she cannot hide from her husband (and his fierce temper). One by one, wife and children must cope with the father's temper and hypocrisy as the novel takes us through marriage ceremonies, British occupation, and even family tragedy.

It is often said that Mahfouz does with Cairo in his fiction what Dickens did with London or Dostoyevsky did with St. Petersburg in their respective works. He offers an objective glimpse into the minds and hearts of his characters, and in the process exposes the universality of their culture, religious beliefs, and overall value system -- things which may seem remote and alien to Westerners, especially in these times.

If you are looking for a multi-cultural novel that shows just how dysfunctional all families can be, Palace Walk is a good pick. In fact, I place this book on the same "family dysfunction" shelf as Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine.

(I plan to read Book Two of the Cairo Trilogy -- Palace of Desire -- later this year.)

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Rachel Cohn & David Levithan, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist

A colleague recommended this book to me.

Said colleague mentioned that it's a book which has received many accolades since its publication last year, and it epitomizes what "young readers really look for in a good book."

Apparently, young readers must look for pseudo-hip dialogue that ridiculously drops the f-bomb like a comma; emotionally needy narrators who dwell on their insecurities and continuously wonder if they're homosexual; a storyline that takes place over the course of one night (James Joyce, anyone?) and is told through the alternate-chapter points-of-view of the two protagonists (William Faulkner, anyone?); and fiction that succeeds in doing little more than capture the ranting zietgeist prattlevoice of the typical adolescent boy and girl as it whines about music, parents, sex, substances, sex, insecurities, and sex.

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist tells of one night in the life of the title characters, two Manhattan high school seniors who have just emerged from failed relationships and come to meet at a performance of their favorite band. Complete strangers when they hook-up in an effort to make Nick's ex jealous, they begin a long night of conversations and meanderings through the streets of New York City, confronting their own obsessions, insecurities, and issues as their relationship develops.

It's an entertaining premise for a story, and the authors execute the storytelling in a back-and-forth manner which would seem clever and innovative to less erudite readers. If anything, each of the two narrators has a distinctive voice, and their musings are sprinkled with pop culture references galore, and enough obscenities to pass as a realistic slice-of-life of the average adolescent: Charles W. Chestnut capturing 2007 teen angst, if you will.

But "good" books do more than merely entertain you with a slice-of-life. They do more than offer what you already know. They teach. They inspire. They affirm. They challenge. One would hope that they make you a slightly ... oh so slightly ... "better" person by the end of the reading because they've taught ... or inspired ... or affirmed ... or challenged. And here is where Nick & Norah fails: it panders precisely to what young readers know already (and the more insecure ones will want vindicated), but it doesn't transcend beyond that. Even by the time the couple come to learn the Jewish concept of tikkan olam, it's too little too late.

Sadly, reading this book was one of the most misspent two hours of my week.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Happy Birthday Charles Dickens!

. . . born on this day in 1812.


Sunday, February 04, 2007

Laurie Halse Anderson, Fever 1793

Here's a pretty good book for YA girls. It follows the story of fourteen-year-old Matilda Cook, whose mother owns Cook's Coffeehouse in 1793 Philadelphia just as the yellow fever epidemic strikes the city. Spreading quickly from the ports into the city itself, the fever forces residents to take to the roads, and when her mother begins to exhibit symptoms and is whisked away to the country residence of family friends, Mattie and her elderly Grandfather are left to their own devices to seek shelter and medical attention as soon as possible.

Fever has a solid story with plenty of page-turning episodes to keep young readers engaged, including the appearance of two murderous burglers, the acquisition of a young waif named Nell, and even a little romance with (sigh!) Nathaniel Benson! What I liked best here, however, was the story's basis in historical fact: its descriptions of the cruel treatment of fever victims by the common people, how doctors both here and in Europe treated the disease differently, and Anderson's use of enough Appendix-laden material to qualify this novel as clearly a piece of YA historical fiction.

Predictably, of course, we have the young protagonist who begins the novel with a certain set of values and, because of a life-altering experience, is now a much more "grown-up" individual by novel's end. It's fine to offer younger readers that sort of life-affirming storyline, but it's becoming so formulaic to me this year (after having read Soldier's Heart, Under the Same Sky, and Touching Spirit Bear) that I'm actually on a search at this point for something ... I don't know ... different.

Nevertheless, Fever is a good book, especially for young female readers. Check it out!