Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Eden and Happiness

It's kind of a relief when I don't love a book. Sometimes I worry that I don't have very discriminating tastes because I so often LOOOOOVE whatever I'm reading. So when I finish a book and think, "meh. It was all right," a little part of me wipes my forehead and says, "phew!"

Eve, by Elissa Elliot is a good book, but it did not wow me or knock my socks off. It was an easy and quick enough read, but it will not stick with me. The story of the first woman (well, really, the first family), it had the potential to be an extraordinary book, not just good. Starting on Eve's deathbed and then flashing back through her years in Eden and her family's life in exile, the book bounces back and forth between several narrators and that's part of how the book lost me. I love a book with multiple narrators. But not when the book is titled for one character and subtitled: A Novel of the First Woman.

It is persnickity, I know. But it irritated me that I expected to read an entire book from Eve's perspective and in her voice, but instead I read a few chapters from her point of view and exponentially more chapters from the various voices of her daughters.

I was also disappointed that Elliott never touches the subject of Lilith, Adam's "first wife." According to lore, Lilith makes several appearances in Adam's life and it seemed to me like potentially fabulous fodder for Eve's drama. But nope. Not a mention, unless I was nodding off at some point and missed it, (which, to be fair, I read at night and sometimes I am a bit noddy--I'm not dissing Elliott).

There is plenty of existential angst and marital angst and sibling rivalry angst and mother/daughter angst and how-to-exist-peacefully-with-those-non-Edenite-city-dwellers angst, and it's interesting. And I know I shouldn't blame the book for not being what I expected it to be. But I kind of do.

I'm also reading:

Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project is the memoir of one woman's quest to spend a year of her life searching for and more fully appreciating the happiness in her life. It's inspired me to go through the next 12 months, one (or 3) "resolution" at a time, in an attempt to live a more mindful and happy life. It's not phenomenal literature, a tiny bit dry at points, but the subject matter and the journey is inspiring and I'm loving it.

In my search for a greater understanding of happiness (per the Happiness Project thing), I've decided to read different books about happiness--happiness in different cultures, raising happy kids, different philosophers' thoughts on how to live a truly happy life. No worries, I'm not looking to find some sort of "how to be happy" self-help recipe. I'm just curious what the idea of happiness means to other people.

Eric Weiner's book, The Geography of Bliss, is an entertaining journey. A self-proclaimed "grump," Weiner travels the world to find, as he says, "the happiest place on earth." For a grump, he's pretty freaking hilarious (although he is pretty sarcastic, which is the grump's sense of humor, after all). He visits a variety of countries, interviews citizens about how happy they are (or aren't) and picks apart the myths of happiness in each place.

I've been looking at this book since it was published and I'm so glad that I found it in my library and that, yay!!!, it fits into my happiness project, thereby making it, clearly, a MUST read! Yay!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Still Frustrated

Mostly because I can't seem to keep up with this blog. Not sure what my issue is--perhaps I am so hopped up to talk about books that I feel intimidated by the greatness of some of the stuff I'm reading and fear that whatever I have to say about it won't be "enough"--insightful enough, written well-enough, whatever.

But the only option other than forging ahead with the blog is giving up the blog and I'm really not willing to do that. If there's one thing I know about myself it is that I am inherently compelled to talk about books. And when I'm not writing this blog, I tend to want to pin down anyone who makes eye contact in a "what have you read recently? Was it good? Let me tell you about what I just read....." sort of invasion of personal mental space. Today a girl friend of mine asked me to pick out a good book for her from my collection and in my excitement to share a book with a friend and SQUEEEE!!! potentially talk about it with her, I barraged her with questions about what type of book she'd like, what genre, what type of stories---historical fiction? family dynamics? memoir?! WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE?! I'VE GOT IT ALL AND I CAN'T WAIT TO SHHHHHHHHARE!!! I am fairly certain that as she chuckled and said, "really, just a book," she was really thinking, "What have I gotten into with this one??? I need to get new friends." When one of my best friends came to visit for a week last month, we talked briefly about books and I ended up emerging from my room one day with a stack of books for her to "borrow" (she lives on the other side of the country, so "borrow" really means "have" in this case). She laughed at me and chose a couple of the best ones, because really, she'd need an entire suitcase dedicated to the mini-library I'd selected for her.

I like to share books. Because I like to talk about them. And since I am hard-pressed to find any nerds here as nerdy as myself, I find I will have to pour myself back into this blog and share my books with you, you lucky interweb.

I won't go into full detailed reviews of all the books I've read since December 1st, but I will share with you a list of and a few thoughts about the ones I've really enjoyed in the past few months. I am also planning to write here at least every Wednesday.

How the Light Gets In, by M.J. Hyland, is the story of an Australian girl who leaves her impoverished home to become an exchange student in a wealthy Chicago suburb. She struggles to fit into her new "family" while bristling against the superficiality of her new environment. It is almost as though Hyland envisioned Holden Caulfield, the angst-ridden teen, dropped into the middle of the film American Beauty, where everything looks to be perfect, but is actually a hot mess waiting to explode. The results are tragic, as Lou comes face-to-face with the disillusionment of her dream and the consequences of her actions (and the actions of those around her). I have read some unflattering reviews of this book, but I think most of them miss the mark; this book is not just about Lou and her self-destructive behavior. Just like Salinger in Catcher in the Rye, Hyland seems to be lamenting the isolation and angst of being a teenager in a world that seems to set you up for failure.

As a New Englander and a mother, Strout's Olive Kitteridge struck such a chord in me. A series of stories strung together to create a cohesive novel with Olive Kitteridge as it's main character, the book creates an image of Crosby, Maine during a time of transition. The theme of New England stoicism runs through so much of the book, with so many characters opting for stern silence rather than expressing their feelings, that at times I felt viscerally uncomfortable reading it. Having been brought up with that veneer of "every is fine," even when everything is falling to pieces, it was difficult to watch characters swallow their feelings and allow life to happen to them. And it was epic when a character truly spoke his/her mind. The book is so achingly beautiful--Strout's development of the characters and the relationships between them, some deeply painful--like Olive's relationship with her only child--I found it almost impossible to put down.

I adore Barbara Kingsolver. From Bean Trees to the Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer, her books, her gift for character, theme, description, all of it, has mesmerized me. It was everything in me not to snatch this book up the day it was released (it had been almost TEN years since she published a work of fiction; I was dying!)

So I was a bit frantic when I wasn't drawn into the story on the firs page. Or the 20th. Or the 50th. The story of Harrison William Shepherd, The Lacuna chronicles his life from 1929 to 1951. Shuttled back and forth between his Mexican mother and his American father, Harrison writes everything down in his notebooks. A boy of seemingly little consequence in the world, Harrison finds himself in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, serving as a domestic and eventually, a confidant. His path also crosses that of Leon Trotsky as Trotsky seeks refuge in the Rivera-Kahlo household. After his return to the United States, these connections find him embroiled in one of the most tumultuous debacles of American history, McCarthyism.

The book was hard to get into. It took about 100 pages before I was completely enrapt and could not put the book down. The symbolism of the lacuna, in the book an underwater cave, but more generally, a gap or missing piece, is developed from the first page to the last so exquisitely that Kingsolver had me fooled up until the end. I literally gasped when I got to her final twist. It is not The Poisonwood Bible, I sincerely believe that Kingsolver wouldn't have wanted it to be--this book is entirely different from anything Kingsolver's written before and is amazing and worthy in its own right.

I adored The Red Tent by Diamant, so I was thrilled to pick up Day After Night. Diamant has a gift of creating female characters and weaving them into complicated relationships and forging their bonds through stories of adversity and salvation. The experiences of four women in the British-operated Palestinian interment camp after the Holocaust (hello, did NOT know those even existed--history's untold stories are vast and disturbing, people! Read about the camps here), the novel is beautifully written and emotionally compelling. Each woman's tale is different from the other--one spent time in a concentration camp, one was hidden in the Dutch countryside, one was a Polish Zionist fighting with the resistance and one survived occupied Paris using her wits and her body.

The women's stories demonstrate how every person's experience of the Holocaust is unique and how they deal with the aftermath is equally individual. But regardless of the differences of their own stories, each woman shows remarkable strength and resolve in enduring the next step of their journey towards freedom, from their pasts and from the Atlit detention center.

Oh my goodness. If you even remotely liked The Time Traveler's Wife, you HAVE to go get Niffenegger's second book, Her Fearful Symmetry. I've never read anyone who can dip into the supernatural and make it seem so effortless, creating a story so believable, even though it is utterly against the rules of time and space, that the reader can absolutely suspend her disbelief for the duration of the novel. This is the second time Niffenegger has done this.

I believe she's able to do it because she creates characters who are so utterly compelling and captivating that you are willing to take the journey wherever it goes in order to get to know them better, even when it wanders boldly outside of the boundaries of our widely accepted notion of realistic possibilities.

Set outside of London's Highgate Cemetery, the novel is the story of two generations of twins and the ways in which they twist their identities around each other and what happens when they attempt to extricate themselves from their twins' grasps. One of the elder twins, Elspeth Noblin, dies and leaves her estate, including an apartment just outside of Highgate Cemetery, to her nieces, her sister's twin daughters, whom she has never met. Julia & Valentina, the second generation of twins, arrive in London, move into her Elspeth's apartment. As an only child, I've always been fascinating by sibling relationships, especially those of twins; perhaps that's why I was unable to put this book down. I at once wished for the connection these women had and felt utterly grateful not to feel the responsibility and connection to another human being that could so sap my sense of freedom and individuality.

I am hesitant to reveal anything further because the book is just a marvel, in my eyes, of twists and turns. Just, really, read the book.

***** ***** *****

Okay, so that gets us pretty much caught up; there are a couple other books I've read recently that I might add into later reviews, but I think that's enough for now?!

Happy reading!