You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Last Evenings on Earth

I've heard a lot about Roberto Bolaño lately so I looked forward to reading his short story collection, Last Evenings on Earth. The stories are mostly first person narratives, and the narrators seem to be in some sort of limbo, like a transition or waiting position. Bolaño was a Chilean exile, and many of these stories involve the exile community or have a sense of violence in the background.

The title story is about a young man and his father going on a vacation from Mexico City to Acapulco. The young man spends most of his time reading poetry--most of Bolaño's protagonists are poets or writers or at least readers of poetry. The father is more interested in going out and having a good time. The father takes his son out for the evenings, and a new acquaintance leads them to a dubious club. The father gambles while the son enjoys the women and gets drunk, and all the time a feeling of foreboding grows. The son realizes that the father is not going to be allowed to leave with all his winnings, but they narrowly escape. Yet in the final notes of the story we see that this is just the beginning of a rift between father and son.

In "Days of 1978", a young man, B, becomes obsessed with another man, U, after a disagreement at a party. He runs into U and his wife, and later has a fling with one of U's wife's friends. Eventually he runs into U at a mutual friends' house and realizes that everyone is trying to deal with U's suicide attempt. After being prompted by a woman, B narrates the plot of a movie he had seen. He is touched by the effect on U. In the end, he hears about U's suicide. This is a best example of these stories that is about one person's point of view of another. It's like the story is about the relationship of the narrator to the object of his obsession. It's a filtered view of the object. The protagonist is living his life as a ghost or reflection of his obsession.

The story "Anne Moore's Life" is told by a friend and lover of hers. It's like he was reading her diaries and exposing the ugly pieces that make up her life. The story starts when her sister's boyfriend is jailed for murdering his parents. She spends the next several years bouncing between lovers and jobs, with half-assed attempts at building a life. The story is not so much in the plot as in how her character is built out of her haphazard choices. Yet she cannot bring her life together. Bolaño's style is simple yet powerful.

"Sensini" is about the narrator's relationship via mail with another exiled Chilean author and their discussions about writing, writing competitions, and family. "A Literary Adventure" tells about a writer's attempt to poke fun at a popular author in a novel and how he tries to figure out whether the author's glowing praise is honest or ironic. In "Mauricio ('The Eye') Silva", the narrator runs into an old friend to tells him how he rescued Indian boys from a brutal cult.

The stories seem to have more in them than the simple narratives would indicate. The inside cover describes the stories as "haunting", and I think that description is accurate. Many of the characters are haunted or obsessed with another person. There is often the hint of violence behind the scene, as with the beginnings of Anne Moore's story. Bolaño's use of letters as placeholders for names, as in U and B in "Days of 1978", gives the stories an analytical, almost police report style, yet makes them more universal and personal at the same time. The characters seem lost or in a between state. They were enjoyable to read about. This line from "Vagabond in France and Belgium" struck me as memorable: "B shuts his eyes but can still see the silhouettes of the machines, persisting like the pain in his chest, although perhaps they are not machines but bewildering figures, the human race suffering and laughing as it marches toward the void." A-

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Dog Said Bow-Wow

I'd recently read some stories by Michael Swanwick and enjoyed them so I found his short story collection The Dog Said Bow-Wow at the library. Swanwick writes fantastic, often whimsical science fiction. His stories are humorous yet also grand.

Three of the stories involve the characters Darger and Surplus, a pair of gentleman rogues. Darger is an English gentleman and Surplus is a one-of-a-kind genetically modified dog. In the title story, they attempt to swindle an English woman out of her diamonds using a piece of ancient banned technology, a modem. In the second story, Darger beds a cat-woman but gets involved in her ploy to escape from her husband and master. "Boys and Girls, Come out and Play" has the two rogues looking for long lost bronzes in Greece and having to help the locals when Africans let loose the gods Dionysus and Eris to experiment on the effects on the population. The two rogues excel at getting into trouble, never losing their cool, but keep missing their targets.

The story "Triceratops Summer" is a sentimental story about the gift of free time. "The Skysailor's Tale" is a fantastic story of a young man who gets caught up with a sky ship and mixed-up realities. A sky ship comes to Philadelphia from England in the early nineteenth century; but while the Americans are just getting over a brutal war with England, the English sailors have just sailed from a land where America is still a possession of the queen's. "The Bordello in Fairy" is a gritty and grim tale of how desire can be twisted into addiction. The final story, "Urdumheim", taps into myths of creation. The first people receive the gift of language only to have it come under attack from mysterious creatures.

All of Swanwick's stories are very inventive, and he has a great writing style. He can be both humorous and insightful. The stories are often serious but always a lot of fun. A-

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Onion Girl

In Charles de Lint's The Onion Girl, Jilly Coppercorn is a woman in her thirties who appears to have overcame a dark past to present a ever cheerful personality to her friends. But she is forced to finally confront her past when she becomes the victim of a hit and run accident and is partially paralyzed and has a broken arm and leg. What crushes her spirit most is the thought that with her right arm paralyzed she will never again be able to draw or paint, which is the center of her life.

Jilly lives the fictional town of Newford but has just learned to transport her spirit to the faerie world where she is whole. Her friend Sophie has been going there for years, and their friend Wendy becomes Jealous that she can't go there. As Jilly lies in the hospital bed, she longs just to go back to sleep and travel away from the World As It Is to the faerie world. Yet she understands that when she leaves her body she is abandoning her true life and she will not begin to heal until she deals with the problems of her past.

Jilly's past is in the human form of her younger sister Raylene, whom Jilly abandoned to a terrible home when she was an adolescent and Raylene was a young child. Raylene suffers at the hands of their parents and is raped by their brother Del until she sticks a switchblade--given to her by her friend Pinky--in him one night. Raylene is a sort of shadow, a dark double of Jilly. They sprung from the same source, yet while Jilly managed to get beyond her past and troubled teens with the help of her friends, Raylene lived a life of violence that turned her bitter and vengeful. When Raylene breaks into Jilly's studio apartment and sees the paintings of whimsical faerie creatures from around Newford she tears them to shreds in a rage.

Jilly's friend Joe Crazy Dog travels through faerie and learns that someone has been dreaming themselves into faerie in wolf form and hunting unicorns. He and his friends vow to track down the wolves and stop them. But before he can he discovers that Jilly has been kidnapped. Raylene and her friend Pinky have picked up Jilly's body from the rehab center and walked through a wall into the faerie world. Thus Jilly's past has finally caught up with her and forced her to confront her demons. Jilly makes a sacrifice to give her sister another chance, even though others believe she doesn't deserve it.

This story of two lives can be seen as two stories of the same life split in two. Raylene is the version of Jilly's life if she didn't escape the bad home and eventually find friends who gave her a real chance at success. Jilly knows that Raylene never had a fair shot and feels strong guilt at abandoning her. Raylene is bitter that the sister who was the only one who cared about her left her behind. Jilly makes her sacrifice not just for Raylene's sake but to make herself whole in spirit. Raylene is her shadow, her alter self, and she can never give up on her. In an interesting twist, Raylene has her own shadow in Pinky, who is even more violent and vengeful. Pinky and Jilly are two possible alternatives for Raylene to choose, and while she never fully embraces Jilly or her offers, she does reject Pinky's violence in the end.

Newford is a city filled with magic and fey creatures. Jilly and her friends are playful about how much of it they believe in, and Wendy is somewhat shocked to discover the faerie world. I'm not sure I completely buy into the fanciful world though. It sometimes seemed it was too much related to Jilly and her friends and didn't have much depth. The faerie world itself was interesting and I always felt like there was more to know about it.

The conflict in the story is all inside Jilly, except for when it manifests itself with Raylene's kidnapping of her. She had lived through extreme circumstances and made a good life, but couldn't completely put her damaging past away for good. I think the story has more resonance if it's read as symbolic, with Raylene as the dark past that's always haunting you until it catches up with you. Jilly is the Onion Girl because inside her outward facing layers are darker layers and finally a hollow shell. The novel is the story of how she starts to fill that emptiness. B+

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Book Thief

Markus Zusak's The Book Thief is a mixture of a coming of age story and a gripping tale of survival in Nazi Germany. The approach Zusak takes is innovative: the narrator is Death, who often lets drop details about the characters' fate. The end result is a bit of foreboding with a heightened sense of dramatic tension.

The story starts with Liesel Meminger and her mother traveling on a train. Liesel's young brother dies on the train and is buried. At the grave site Liesel steals her first book, The Gravediggers Handbook. Then her mother leaves her in Molching with a foster family, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, and is never heard from again. Hans is a warm man who teaches Liesel how to read and plays the accordion for her. Rosa's growing love for Liesel shines through her harsh words.

Liesel goes to school and soon graduates from the younger class to be with students her own age. She becomes fast friends with named Rudy who imagines himself the next Jesse Owens. Together they become thieves and steal fruit and other food as part of a gang.

The story deepens when Max, the Jewish son of a man who saved Hans's life in the Great War, comes to them for protection. He stays for many long months, hiding in their basement, nearly starving and coming close to death. Max becomes close friends with Liesel, and they share stories. Max creates a book for her out of painted over pages of Mein Kampf.

Liesel steals her second book at a Nazi book burning. Later, while picking up laundry at the mayor's house, the mayor's wife shows Liesel her secret library. Liesel spends time with her reading forbidden books.

When Hans dares to offer assistance to Jews being marched to a camp, he becomes worried about the danger he has brought onto the family, and Max leaves the house. But instead of increased scrutiny, Hans is accepted into the Nazi party and sent to serve in a fire brigade. Rosa and Liesel struggle to survive without Max's income as a painter or Rosa's laundry income. When the mayor's wife stops laundry service, Liesel starts sneaking into her home to steal books. She eventually realizes that the mayor's wife is letting her steal the books. At the end, it is Liesel's love of books and reading that saves her from death.

Though this book was a little slow in the beginning, it quickly becomes compelling. Liesel's relationships with Rosa and Hans grow into realistic and meaningful family ties. Books become a way of bonding between her and Hans. She uses books to rebel, against the Nazis and the mayor's wife just out of spite. Her friendship with Rudy also grows, yet as they grow closer they never cross the line from friendship to another level.

Death provides a cold and calculating narration, but with insight into the human condition. He often laments the hard work he does during the war.

This story is an interesting look at life in Nazi Germany from the point of view of a family who suffers under the Third Reich and tries to help a friend as well as survive. Liesel acts bravely to protect and help her friends. She grows up as she deals with death and love. A-