Monday, January 18, 2010

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

A one handed boy meets a lot of quirky eccentrics as he searches for his family

This was a hard book for me to get through – it meanders. Ren, the boy, is claimed from an orphanage, encounters lots of spooky characters and situations in a sort of fairy tale time and place. But Ren left me cold as a main character, but how could a sensitive orphan with a weakness for thievery leave me cold? He doesn’t yearn for anything and is passive? The details are unique, imaginative and numerous, but the tension never builds. Only at the end, when the boy is claimed by his uncle, that I started to get drawn into the story. About a fourth of the way in, I decided to grit my teeth and finish it (for the book seems rather short), but it was painful. The prose style was vivid and succeeded in producing an odd tone – we clearly are in a distinct different world. I like the fact the time and the setting are not quite realistic.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

What does it mean to be English?

This book starts out so memorably – so full of energy and funny. A breath of fresh air. This novel works on so many levels – the prose is rollicking and the themes are IMPORTANT –the immigrant experience, colonialism, racism, the thoughtless tinkering of science, Islamic fundamentalism, the past impinging on the present. This is the story of three families, the mixed Jones, the immigrant Iqbals, the intellectually superior Chalfens. It’s not just about teenagers smoking cigarettes. I loved the characters – they were very passionate, quirky, fully realized, the kind Archie, the outraged Samad , the yin yang twins. However, a problem is that the book never quite hit the very superior high point of the opening section. And then, disappointingly, the ending feels forced, too many brilliantly colored threads to be wrapped up. Doesn’t quite work – the last section felt hurriedly written and tacked on.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

A fuckup finds himself the last living man on earth.

And yet the story is about how this fuck up Jimmy/Snowman was entrusted with the future of the humanity, or at least the future of a tribe of gentle souls called crakers, who’ve had all the sex and violence tinkered out of them. The story bounces back and forth through time, with funny energetic descriptions of this future world, its social divisions and the fantastic new creatures the corporations create. In this world, virtually everyone is crushed by the soulless corporate/militaristic bureaucracy. Jimmy/Snowman is a low achiever – for good reasons. My sympathy for him grew. However, I was very disappointed as I kept reading and soon began to realize that Oryx and Crake, who seem like tragic interesting characters, are never going to climb on the stage. When they finally do appear, they are very insubstantial. And their end, therefore, has little resonance.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

A sister and a brother live with the loss of their mother in 1950's West Virginia

This novel is really two entwined stories – a young soldier trapped in a tunnel during the Korean War and the evocatively written story of two siblings, one an adolescent girl, then other a brain damaged boy. The value of the book comes from the vivid descriptions of the small town and the friends and family and the quite moving love they have for each other. As more details of the town and the characters and their history accumulate, especially from the distinctive points of view of the siblings, the power of the book grows. There’s a flood scene that gets quite gripping, reminding me of something fantastical, like from the Wizard of Oz. However, the reader must make an effort to continue near the beginning as the Korean battle scenes feel repetitive (at least to me) and therefore boring. Overall, there are long stretches of beautiful set pieces occasionally held together by clunky exposition. I really liked a lot of the descriptions of the landscape – a field of grass, a ditch. However, the ending feels tacked on and not believable. Also, there’s an albino ghost popping in occasionally – not sure what he adds.