15 April 2007

First term reading list

Seeing as how we just began the second term at school this past week, I decided to lift a great idea from Bookdwarf and post a few mini-reviews. Because I have neither the time nor the talent to write real reviews about the books I read, I think this sort of recap at the end of each academic term is good goal to have. I don't how much attention my "books on the nightstand/back on the shelf" sections get, plus it helps me say something about some wonderful books that may not have provoked their own posts (through my own fault rather than theirs!).

In reverse chronological order:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ~ Purple Hibiscus
I first heard of Adichie in a 2004 post of Maud's and made a mental note to get to "that book" someday. Nearly three years and a continent later, I've finally read it (a Saturday well-spent) and would recommend it without hesitation. Faith and legalism, abuse and love, oppression and liberation all coexist not only under one roof, but in one man. That the daughter, Kambili, seems unobstrusive is an understatement. It's almost as if she is slowly disappearing into the background of events she can do nothing to affect or control. (I completely identified with her startling self-effacement and desire to be unseen.) There is suffering, but she accepts it. Her journey is made all the more real by her refusal to reject and judge, even while she learns how unacceptable many aspects of her world have become. Adichie's description of life in Nigeria reminded me a lot of what life is like here in Santa Marta. I loved the richness of the particulars of her world, and the pain expressed by those who had to leave it. (Of note: Laila Lalami's conversation with Adichie.)

Philip Pullman ~ The Amber Spyglass
I was deeply intrigued by The Golden Compass, but just plain disappointed with this last book in the trilogy. The theology (and its inversion) didn't bother me, neither did his take on Paradise Lost (although it would be interesting to read C.S. Lewis' Preface to Paradise Lost alongside this series). I freely admit to loving Lewis and Tolkien and Pullman (the latter's venom against the former doesn't bother me as it's the work I'm interested in, not petty hatreds). But this doesn't change the fact that I closed this novel on several unanswered questions. The mysterious nature of the name of the series, His Dark Materials, was very much tied into the nature of Dust. But this intriguing aspect of the book was never brought to bear on the outcome of the last novel. I guess you could say that it was, technically, but there were many missed opportunities to tie in the fate of these particles with the fate of the characters and all that they discover. Let's just say he didn't do Blake justice. (Also, can someone please explain to me why none of the movie stills include any of the characters' daemons?)

I made no secret of what I think (and learned) about Barth (and I still have another post in the draft stage). This is a book that anyone with even a passing interest in literature should read. These innovative stories should be read and then reread--not because they're clever, but because he achieves another level of understanding of world-weary humanity.
Here readers will find: a story in the form of a cutout Mobius strip; a story narrated by a spermatazoon on its journey of fertilization; a story in which the narrator (the author's recorded voice) pleads with the author himself (standing by) to put it out of its misery; a story narrating its own coming-into-being; a story about speaking in tongues in which each of six brief speeches is "metrically identical" to the Lord's Prayer; a story that takes the notion of story-within-story to its hilarious limits; and stories such as "Life-Story" and "Lost in the Funhouse" itself, perhaps the prototypical and most influential metafictions in postmodern American literature.
Enough said. Go read it.

Arthur Conan Doyle ~ A Study in Scarlet
Picked it up on a Saturday morning and read it for the first time while snuggled in a hammock. I was surprised by Holmes' youth (although the arrogance was to be expected) and didn't realize a trip to 19th-century Utah would be part of the experience as well. It was really fun to read. Watson's skepticism goes nicely with his new housemate's enormous self-assurance, and the vivid prose keeps the urgency of the empty-house murder alive in the back of the reader's mind, even while the focus is elsewhere.

Michael Chabon ~ Wonder Boys
My sister brought this down with her on a visit last year, and I began reading it one night when I was having trouble sleeping. (She had taken a class on novel-to-film adaptation in the Netherlands, and to my delight, the book was filled with her notes.) Let's just say it solved the problem quite nicely, and I kept it by my bed for a few months until I hit the Passover scene, and then finished it a couple of days later. At some point it stopped being a "cleverer-than-thou" take on writers and their besetting demons and became more about the characters. I still think Richard Russo's Straight Man is much more funny and heartbreaking, but I would pick up Chabon again.

Laird Hunt ~ The Exquisite
I began writing about it here, but it soon blossomed into its own post. Here are some more insightful links:
Vladimir Nabokov ~ Speak, Memory
I offered a few thoughts in prior posts on this rich memoir. I suspect that all memoirs (past, present, and future) will be compared to Nabokov's. The dense, tangible details and the immediacy with which he recalls the moments that comprised his childhood made me feel as if I were sitting next to him, watching it all on an old reel. There is no artifice or pretense about how he relates the history of his family, just that familiar biting frankness and open tenderness that I've always loved him for.

Agatha Christie ~ And Then There Were None
I'd read this before as a teenager (and was suitably creeped out), but this copy came with the adventure game based on it, which I received for Christmas (and which I have yet to finish, as it's an endless inventory hunt). I read it one night in my hammock on the balcony and it still sent chills up my spine. I'll head back to the house at some point soon... (Also of note: The Official Agatha Christie Website.)

A friend gave me a copy of this novel (a favorite of hers), and I gladly read it before seeing the movie. Süskind's description of Grenouille's unemotional, detached thought processes are fascinating, and his refusal to sentimentalize or make judgments on events make this a curiously objective read. Alas, it wasn't quite that way with Tykwer's film. Although highly competent, the film softens the ending and opts to moralize on what's taken place, robbing the very last line of its power.

Another one I went on about at length. It's a brilliant book--a good thing to read while slowly working my way up to Rayuela. As Pablo Neruda said,
Anyone who doesn't read Cortázar is doomed. Not to read him is a grave invisible disease which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who had never tasted peaches. He would be quietly getting sadder, noticeably paler, and probably little by little, he would lose his hair. I don't want those things to happen to me, and so I greedily devour all the fabrications, myths, contradictions, and mortal games of the great Julio Cortázar.
A selection of a group blog discussing the classics. It took me awhile to catch up, but I'm very glad I did (and also proved that I can read books online). Stendhal's masterpiece frustrated and provoked me, while unveiling societal hypocrisy and one young man's desire to navigate it all while striving for a heroic end.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o ~ Wizard of the Crow
The book that helped me usher in this new year: a rollicking, intimate, hilarious, dire, prophetic work on the nature of dictatorship and the wealth of wisdom possessed by the people of Africa. It was the Winter 2007 pick of The Litblog Co-op, and there are many excellent conversations about the book and interviews with the author to be found. It's an immensely readable yarn that improves upon our limited Western understanding of Africa's problems and strengths, and takes a "both/and" approach to such issues as faith vs. magic, politics vs. art, male vs. female. Brilliant and highly recommended.

UPDATE: ...And winner of the fiction prize at the California Book Awards! (Via the Literary Saloon)


the teaching assistant said...

Regarding the Pullman/Lewis/Tolkien thing and His Dark Materials, my views are remarkably similar to yours!

About the stills not showing any daemons - I figure that's because those are being done through cgi, which isn't totally complete at this stage in the production. There's some early promotional footage on the web, though, and that shows daemons (some daemons with cgi completely finished, others in progress), including a daemon (that I assume is Pan) changing form. If the following link doesn't work, try typing in "the golden compass" at youtube and you should find it right away.

The footage looks cool, but I've got to say I imagined Lyra looking a lot dirtier and much more cunning and mischevious.

amcorrea said...

Thank you, oh wonderful TA! Yes, that makes sense. I almost feel silly for not thinking of it before.

Could you add a couple links here to places on your blog where you've discussed the issue? I'd love to head over there and talk about it some more (if you'd like).