Monday, September 8, 2008

Books I Read in August 2008

Every book I read in August left me with lingering thoughts. I could write volumes about each, but I'm going to resist the urge and instead, provide a link for each to a review that echoes my sentiments.

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen was a book I resisted reading for quiet a while, due to its popularity. I was particularly interested in reading it because of the shifts in time the story takes. It's told from the point of view of a man who is ninety or ninety-three (he can't remember) in the present day and shifts back to where the real story takes place, during the depression. This review is from the New York Times Sunday Book Review. It was a unique, intriguing story and it was very well written.

Hoffman's Hunger, by Leon de Winter came to me by way of the LibaryThing Early Reviewer Program. From the Toby Press:

"Felix Hoffman’s hunger is both physical and emotional. A Dutch diplomat with a checkered career behind him, he is now Ambassador in Prague in the late 1980s; his final posting. In Kafka’s haunted city, Hoffman desperately feeds his bulimia and spends his insomniac nights studying Spinoza and revisiting the traumas of his past.

A child survivor of the Holocaust, Hoffman married and had beloved twin daughters, but a double tragedy has befallen his family; one daughter died as a young girl of leukemia, the other, who became a heroin addict, has committed suicide. This has wrecked Hoffman’s marriage and his life; he has not had one decent night’s sleep since the death of his daughter over twenty years ago, and his constant physical hunger reflects his emotional hunger for truth and understanding. When Carla, a Czech double agent, gets into Hoffman’s bed, political and emotional mayhem ensues.

Hoffman’s past and his present predicament are inextricably bound up with the tormented history of Europe over the fifty years since the Second World War. Like Europe, he is at a crossroads, and the signs point to an uncertain future. With this spellbinding philosophical thriller, a bestseller in Germany, Leon de Winter charts a search for identity which is both personal and political.

Translated from the Dutch by Arnold and Erica Pomerans."

This book really blew me away. As soon as I finished, I knew I'd read this book again. I also had the thought that this was a book I wish I could have written, and that thought doesn't often come to me. It was Leon de Winter's first novel and it was published in The Netherlands in 1990.

Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill is a collection of nine stories, originally published in 1988. This interview in will give you a fairly good idea of the kind of ride you're in for when you read her work. I'd previously read her novel, Veronica and found that although I really liked it, Gaitskill is actually a better short fiction writer. The stories are gritty and edgy and Gaitskill has a voice unlike any writer I've ever read. Certainly, this collection is a reflection of the sexual mores and rampant drug use in the 80s. She's really an incredible writer.
She Was, by Janis Hallowell is the second novel from this Colorado writer. The main character was a political activist in the early 70's and was responsible for a university bombing that killed someone. She's lived underground since that time and as the story opens, she is about to be exposed. See this review from for more on the story. Although there have been other stories about sixties and seventies radicals, what makes this one particularly interesting is that it takes place in the post 9/11 era and therefore, public and governmental views on terrorism are quite different than they were in the eighties and nineties. This book shifts between the past and present, Hallowell does it from the points of view of two different characters and her prose is lyrical and precise.

Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill reviewed in the New Yorker by James Wood here is the critically acclaimed new novel, described by Pantheon Books as:

"In a New York City made phantasmagorical by the events of 9/11, Hans--a banker originally from the Netherlands--finds himself marooned among the strange occupants of the Chelsea Hotel after his English wife and son return to London. Alone and untethered, feeling lost in the country he had come to regard as home, Hans stumbles upon the vibrant New York subculture of cricket, where he revisits his lost childhood and, thanks to a friendship with a charismatic and charming Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon, begins to reconnect with his life and his adopted country. Ramkissoon, a Gatsby-like figure who is part idealist and part operator, introduces Hans to an “other” New York populated by immigrants and strivers of every race and nationality. Hans is alternately seduced and instructed by Chuck’s particular brand of naivete and chutzpah--by his ability to a hold fast to a sense of American and human possibility in which Hans has come to lose faith.

Netherland gives us both a flawlessly drawn picture of a little-known New York and a story of much larger, and brilliantly achieved ambition: the grand strangeness and fading promise of 21st century America from an outsider’s vantage point, and the complicated relationship between the American dream and the particular dreamers. Most immediately, though, it is the story of one man--of a marriage foundering and recuperating in its mystery and ordinariness, of the shallows and depths of male friendship, of mourning and memory. Joseph O’Neill’s prose, in its conscientiousness and beauty, involves us utterly in the struggle for meaning that governs any single life."
O'Neill's prose is exceptionally beautiful and I found myself frequently reading passages more than once for the pure pleasure of it. The story was good, but by the end I felt there was something missing.

Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami. This, from Publisher's Weekly:
"Starred Review. Previous books such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood have established Murakami as a true original, a fearless writer possessed of a wildly uninhibited imagination and a legion of fiercely devoted fans. In this latest addition to the author's incomparable oeuvre, 15-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away from home, both to escape his father's oedipal prophecy and to find his long-lost mother and sister. As Kafka flees, so too does Nakata, an elderly simpleton whose quiet life has been upset by a gruesome murder. (A wonderfully endearing character, Nakata has never recovered from the effects of a mysterious World War II incident that left him unable to read or comprehend much, but did give him the power to speak with cats.) What follows is a kind of double odyssey, as Kafka and Nakata are drawn inexorably along their separate but somehow linked paths, groping to understand the roles fate has in store for them. Murakami likes to blur the boundary between the real and the surreal—we are treated to such oddities as fish raining from the sky; a forest-dwelling pair of Imperial Army soldiers who haven't aged since WWII; and a hilarious cameo by fried chicken king Colonel Sanders—but he also writes touchingly about love, loneliness and friendship. Occasionally, the writing drifts too far into metaphysical musings—mind-bending talk of parallel worlds, events occurring outside of time—and things swirl a bit at the end as the author tries, perhaps too hard, to make sense of things. But by this point, his readers, like his characters, will go just about anywhere Murakami wants them to, whether they 'get' it or not."
I'd not read any Murakami previously, but from the first few minutes, I was hooked. John Updike's review in the New Yorker is excellent. This was another book that I wanted to begin all over again once I'd finished it.

* * *

The limits I've placed on my internet use have been working out pretty well. I expect to reach 50,000 words with The Foundling Wheel today -- word count as of this minute: 49,294. I've had a target word count in mind of roughly 65,000 - 75,000 words, so 50,000 is going to feel pretty good. Carleen assures me that the seas are considerably calmer after 50,000 and I want to believe her.

I've had to make some radical changes to my web surfing behavior in order to cut down on my time on line. I now check blogs almost exclusively through Google Reader with one or two exceptions. I still read most posts, but I have drastically cut down on the number of comments I leave. I also realized there were a handful of sites I visit regularly, even though I always seem to feel somehow annoyed or agitated after visiting, because of either the tone of the blogger or the commenters. Something led me to those sites at some point in time and I kept going back out of habit, but I realized I can no longer spare the time on the distraction. I do have to wonder if I am the only one who has had this experience. It's sort of like having that "toxic friend" who somehow always makes you feel bad about yourself, yet you keep spending time with her.

Anyone else run into this online?

I did run across a great resource that I've subscribed to in Google Reader, called 43 Folders. It's about finding the time and focus to do your best creative work. Many of you may already know about this site, since apparently it gets about 8 zillion hits a month. It's good stuff.

Facebook and MySpace have never been much of a draw for me, even though I have (poorly maintained) pages and I do have some "friends". I've pretty much abandoned most of the social networking sites in the name of time management.

On the other hand, Twitter has become a lifeline for me. There is a small group of writers I "follow" around and their regular updates on writing activities motivate me. Since I'm not posting or commenting on blogs as often, Twitter also scratches that itch to check in and be accountable for my writing.

And, the biggest danger to my limited attention span these days is the election. I've decided to watch the debates and I check out any links that my fellow Twitterers find noteworthy, but other than that, I am trying to stay away from the day to day speculation and soap opera aspects.

I do have a small achievement to share. I entered the Women on Writing Spring Flash Fiction Contest (my first submission anywhere) and I got an honorable mention for my piece called, The Frailty of Memory. If you go there, you'll have to scroll down for about ten minutes to find my name. There are quite a few winners, but I'm pretty happy about this small bit of external validation -- AND they're sending me free stuff too!

How is your writing going? Any tips or anecdotes to share on effective time management in the information age? How closely are you following the election coverage?


Larramie said...

APPLAUSE on your honorable mention for The Frailty of Memory, Lisa, how terrific!

During my time away I did some reading that included A Fine and Private Place. Fascinating, thought-provoking and oddly entertaining, here's a thank you for remembering this forgotten book.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cool. congrats on the honorable mention. that's pretty neat for your first time.

Denis said...

I thought I got the Wind-up bird chronicles from you. Congrats on the award. Hurray on 50k! Have a good day.

CindyLV said...

Yeah, Lisa!!!! Congrats on the Honorable Mention, but even more on reaching the 50k mark! (So it IS possible, you say?)

Re: time management? Yikes! Ask anyone else, but me.

Re: Writing? So - So. I'm thinking through some stumbling blocks and sketching out some stuff, but not actually writing the last few days.

Re: Surfing: Getting your computer stolen and losing your links can cut down on your habitual-but-unfruitful clicking.

Re: Twitter: I love following your tracks. I don't twitter because it would entail activating more stuff on my already obnoxious cellphone, another thread in my e-tether.

Re: Election Coverage: I'm not ashamed to admit I can't stand watching the pre-chewed, over-scripted, over- rehearsed, thoroughly vetted, melodramatic performances. It all sounds the same to me: Blah, blah, blah...lower taxes! Cheering! Blah, Blah, care! Cheering! Blah, Blah, Blah ...Better Education! Safer Environment! Social Security! Cheering! Cheering! Cheering! Blah...blah, blah....ZZZZZzzzzz . . . zzz . . z.. z . . . .

I want honest, unscripted, unfettered answers to real, pertinent questions. I want candidates to be real people, not cardboard cut outs who owe influence to un-nameable entities.

I want to know how we can tell what a given person will do in a sticky situation that will result in a positive outcome for the most people in our country without jeopardizing other people in other countries. Is that too much to ask?

How about asking:

Can you stay awake in long, boring meetings?
May I see your kindergarten report card?
Is your signature legible?
How much do you tip waiters?
Are you kind to children and small animals?
If you found a sack with $1,000 in it, what would you do?
What books are on your nightstand?
What books have you read this year?
Is your checkbook balanced within $10?
Can you conjugate the verb "to be"?
Will you pick a running mate that is qualified to be president, then share the duties with him/her, instead of just sending them off to attend funerals and dinner parties with the opposing party?
If you don't do a good job in your first term, will you please not submit your name for a second term?
If you open your locker and discover your lunch is missing and someone tells you that Johnny Smith took it, will you get a couple dozen kids to invade Johnny's yard and kill his family, and burn his house to the ground? Or will you go over and talk to him about it, and maybe bring a close friend with you for back up (in the event it becomes necessary to stand your ground)?

pattinase (abbott) said...

The election is throwing me off even more than the Internet. Constantly looking for good news and not finding it since last week. Ugh!

Melissa Amateis said...

Bravo on your awesome time management skills, Lisa! I'm sure by the time you read this you'll have hit your 50k mark. :-)

Re: the election...they're all politicians and will say what they want us to hear. I watched the speeches from the RNC, but missed the DNC - too busy with other stuff.

Congrats on the honorable mention! You deserve it!

What I am VERY tired of is the absolute venom spewed on blogs, comment sections on online news sites, etc., about both of the candidates. Good GRIEF. I swear, if we were all face-to-face, 90% of those comments wouldn't be made. But since it's anonymous and somehow "safe" to bash other people, it has gone to an entirely new level.

Steve Malley said...

Sara Gruen F*****G ROCKS!!!!

Ahem, sorry. Let me just straighten my chair again. She really is quiet something. Yes.

Great going on the 50k mark!! I'm a couple weeks off from there yet but less than a week from 40k, where I'm planning what's either one hell of a big Tentpole Event or an Act II Climax (in which case I have four acts, which I can live with!)...

Funny you should ask about time management. It's the subject of my next blog post.

When I find the time...

moonrat said...

I wasn't crazy about WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, yet it was one of those books that continued to affect me long after I read it. I thought the treatment of the "present" narrator was annoying, but the Depression-era story was pretty endlessly fascinating. Particularly the historical detail (I'd never heard about poisoned rum distribution before).

Lana Gramlich said...

Congrats on the honorable mention!
I'd heard a bit about Water for Elephants. I read the snippet about it once & thought it might be too depressing for me (not to mention that I'm not big on fiction anymore these days.)
I find myself juggling blog visits, too; changing habits, abandoning some, returning to others.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on The Frailty of memory. That is something to be proud of.
Glad to know you are rushing through the waters. Don't worry and chart the icebergs later.

Patti said...

i scrolled for a mere few seconds to find you. you are el fuego! keep rocking it out. and the election is keeping me glued to the net as well.

Shauna Roberts said...

Big congrats on both reaching the 50K point and for your honorable mention for your first submitted piece!

Someone gave me Water for Elephants, saying I had to read it, but it's still waiting on my pile. Maybe I'll move it up in priority.

I had a better reading month in August than in July—six books vs. two—but I have to admit, three of the six were short romance novels.

Lisa said...

Larramie, *Blushing* Thank you. And I'm so excited you read and liked "A Fine and Private Place"!

Charles, Thank you. It's a pretty small thing, but I have to confess, I'm really happy about it and was grinning for two days when I found out.

Denis, YOU recommended it to ME -- and I've got it, but haven't read it...yet. Thanks!

Cindy, Boy it was a battle to eke out those last couple of hundred words to hit 50K for some reason!

Ha! I actually don't Twitter from anywhere but my PC -- I hardly use my cell phone as a phone :)

And right on, sister on the election. I'm pretty full up on the blah blah blah and need to hear something with some substance. I am actually looking forward to the debates. And I think your questions are PERFECT! In particular, I would have to seriously penalize a lousy tipper. I've always been suspicious of them. Bad tipping tells me you've never had a job in the food service industry and/or you have no consideration for people who count on tips for income. Bad tipper = Bad person to me. "What books have you read this year?" Now obviously, I would LOVE to know that answer to that. And your final question is certainly the "Final Jeopardy" question.

Patti, I know what you mean. Ever since last week, the news has had about as much substance as internet buzz on who's going to win American Idol (which I don't watch).

Melissa, I did! I did hit the 50K mark and of course, now I'm sapped and trying to figure out how to wrap this thing up :)

What a good point about the license to be obnoxious behind the veil of anonymity -- and that applies to all kinds of blogs. The really frustrating part of it all is that I don't give a rat's butt about most of the snarky stuff that makes the news. I want to hear what these people really think.

Steve, A Sara Gruen fan! Who'd 'a thunk it? And congratulations to you for tearing right through your novel. You've been making incredible progress and I've noted that you are attributing it to outlining and planning...hmmm...

Moony, I was really cringing through quite a bit of the story, just because of the inevitable mistreatment of animals and the roustabouts (contrary to my outward hard shell, I'm a real softie sometimes). I actually liked the treatment of the present narrator and I loved the end of the story. I sort of felt like his treatment in the nursing home was very similar to the treatment of the circus animals. The historical detail and the research that went into the novel was great.

Lana, Thank you Ma'am. Well, you saw what I just said about the old timey circus environment for animals and the working stiffs -- it may not be your cup of tea.

Usman, I admit, I kind of am proud of it :) Boy, the icebergs are going to need some serious attention pretty soon.

Patti, And you are doing a fabulous job with the marathon coverage and training! Darn election there no end to the number of distractions tempting me away from my manuscript?

Shauna, Thank you much. I'll be interested in what you think of "Water for Elephants". It's a pretty tough book to categorize in a lot of ways -- very unusual. And I'm all over short books myself. I think "Man in the Dark" was actually under 200 pages. I mix quite a few short books in with the longer ones, just so I can get through more reading sometimes!

Julie Kibler said...

It must have been Hoffman's Hunger that I somehow changed in my mind to Child 44, Lisa! Now it's going to bug me that I can't remember who blogged about it.

I resisted Water for Elephants, too, but once I picked it up, I really couldn't put it down. Like someone else commented, it wasn't the present day narrator that kept me as fascinated as the real story. I took my daughter to the circus a few weeks ago, and I doubt I'll ever look at a circus the same way.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recommendations. My TBR shelves now hold something like 300 books, but you just got me to order three more through Amazon.

So happy you're moving along with FOUNDLING WHEEL. I think you've got a real book happening. (I finally finished MISDIRECTION, just this past Sunday.)

And SOOOOOOOO happy you're reading Murakami. He's my main guy. Pleeeeeeeaaaaaaaaase read AFTER DARK when you get a chance. Oh, what the hell. Read any of them.


Lisa said...

Julie, I don't know where you read about "Child 44" either, but now you've got me curious about it. I'm a sucker for Soviet era thrillers.

Tim, I hope one of the was "Hoffman's Hunger" because I'm dying to hear someone else's thoughts on it. And -- I just ordered "After Dark" and it's downloading to my Kindle now. We've got that trip to Scotland next month and I'm determined to get my money's worth (and avoid a back injury from schlepping too many books), so I'll be reading it soon.

I'm really happy about "The Foundling Wheel" too. I have no idea what I'll end up with, but I am really believing that at the very least, it will END.

Congratulations on "Misdirection". I'm pretty excited about that one since I got to learn a little about it when you came out here.

Sustenance Scout said...

Woohoo!! Can't wait to read your flash piece. Every pat on the back helps, I'm telling you. And CONGRATS on hitting the 50K mark. You're on a roll!

Finished Schuyler's Monster and The Glass Castle, reading Leaving Atlanta and still have to remind myself it's fiction after having my head in non-fiction mode for a while.

Netherland and Kafka on the Shore have just been added to the list. Glad you enjoyed Water for Elephants.

Also finished reading Ted's draft!! K.

Lisa said...

Karen, Thanks for your continuing support ;)

You'll have to tell me about "Schuyler's Monster".

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf