Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner
Khaled Hosseini

Amir's childhood is a tumble of playing with his friend Hassan, reading stories under the pomegranate tree, vying for his father's approval, and taking part in the annual kite flying competitions. But as childhood wanes, three events break Amir's comfortable upper-class life: he discovers that he is a writer, he fails to step in and help Hassan in crisis, and Soviet troops begin bombing Kabul.

Amir and his father smuggle themselves to Pakistan, and from there move to California to begin a new life. But the the repercussions of his cowardice haunt Amir. Resolutely, he stifles guilt and ignores the memory of the friend who was a brother to him. Until a phone call from Pakistan requires him to make the same choice again.

Powerful, devastating, heartbreaking, and convicting, The Kite Runner is not only a look at the world of Afghanistan in the last century, but also a deep exploration of the sin of omission. The characters are rich and pungeant, the setting exotic yet homey, the narrator an uncomfortably real man. Prepare to journal and cry over this one. And be careful: it just might change you, too.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Prisoner of Zenda

The Prisoner of Zenda
Anthony Hope

This is a re-read, but I've decided to review all books as I read them, provided they haven't yet made it onto the site. Which means you will not get a review of Lord of the Rings every three months, but you do get to hear about The Prisoner of Zenda today.

For a long* time I listed this book when asked my "favorite**." It's a clever and moving tale of high adventure, full of sword fights, intrigue, daring, and frantic gallops across small European countries. It reminds me very much of the film description of The Princess Bride: "Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles...."

Set in mythical Ruritania, The Prisoner of Zenda concerns a young English aristocrat, left enough money by his father to allow a life of whim and leisure. When he goes to see the coronation of the new King of Ruritania, he discovers a plot against the sovereign, to whom he bears a striking resemblance. To save the throne, he agrees to sit in for the kidnapped king, buying time for a desperate rescue attempt. Unfortunately, he inadvertantly wins the heart of the princess, and must choose whether to live the honorable man or continue the masquerade to fulfill the desire of his heart.

Though interlaced with questions of honor, loyalty, and valour, The Prisoner of Zenda never forgets that it is a tale of heart-pounding adventure. It has well earned its place as one of the top three swashbuckling adventures I've ever read.

*when it comes to the life of my obsessions, "long time" can be reasonably defined as 6-18 months.
**While I am firmly of the opinion that an avid reader can have a favorite book just as realistically as one can have a favorite skin cell, people persist in asking this question, so I generally try to remember a standard answer.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Question for the People

Hey, multitude of readers - yes, all two of you - have you ever read a book that was so good it became the Standard of Goodness against which other novels you read were judged? What is it? Why do you consider it so excellent? Do you re-read it, or just cherish it in memory?

The House on the Strand

The House on the Strand
Daphne du Maurier

A long time ago, in a country far far away, there were library booksales. At one of these heavens I saw a book called The Scapegoat, intriguing because I had just finished a thesis which dealt with the idea of scapegoating. As it was fifty cents, I bought it. And so was caught by the brilliance of Daphne du Maurier.

The Scapegoat will probably always be my favorite, but The House on the Strand throws open a vaguely uncanny realm of possibility, thrusts you into it, and closes the door behind. Specifically, the psychological relationship between the past and present. Do we carry latent common memories with ancestors? If aroused, what would those memories tell us? Would active knowledge of them change our present behavior? Professor Lane, a brilliant biologist, has concocted a drug which opens the old world to his long-time friend Richard Young, who is eager for new experience with which to replace the pasty dissatisfaction of a midlife crisis.

There is never any question as to whether these characters are real; they walk in my memory as vividly as my college roommates, merging fiction and reality much in the same way the drug merges past and present for Richard. He begins to encounter difficult side effects, but now is addicted to the drama of watching another world unfold (this was before TV and therefore surprises him).

Though the setting is rich (Cornwall countryside!), the characters superb, and the plot intriguing, the resolution is dodgy. Most of the pressing questions remain unanswered after a long build-up of hints and near-reveals. I was left feeling a bit cheated out of important information, as if the author decided it was time for the book to be finished already and just closed things off. I understand the dramatic need for the twist which occasioned most of my disappointment, but somehow the tension did not build in such as way as to leave me breathless, but, rather, huffy. Perhaps it is my own fault.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Devil Wears Prada

The Devil Wears Prada
Lauren Weisberger

Contrary to what is said on the popular blog Stuff White People Like, it is not socially unacceptable to read a book after it has become a movie. Well, maybe it is, but I don't live in white suburban America anymore, so I don't have to abide by those rules.

I will admit that, if I had not been dragged to see the movie and then accidentally adored it, I would never have picked up this book. One has only to glance at me to see that, clearly, fashion is not My Thing. Somehow all the fashion genes in my family (along with the fashionable jeans) got distributed to my brothers.

But I adored this movie for its fantastic wittiness, fascinating characters, stellar cast, and moral morasses. The book is not quite so witty, the characters are not quite as endearing or lifelike, and of course there's no cast. But the moral challenges and decisions about priorities are even more strongly a theme of the book.

The choices made in the book are not as neat or as fixable as in the film. Andy loses people she loves and is not able to get them back. She lets her friends down and almost costs the life of one of them. She learns little about fashion. But she is real, she struggles with priorities, and the story is told well. I actually took it out of my bag to finish reading it at home one evening after work.

I probably won't re-read this books as many times as I have re-watched the film, but it was enjoyable and not overly fluffy. Definitely worth the time.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

In America

In America
Susan Sontag

The story of a celebrated Polish actress who persuades her friends to follow her to California to establish a simple farm commune and take pleasure in wholesome activity, In America is a tale of dreams, journeys, hope, and how to find one's self when one is without a proper country.

The novel is quite philosophical, spending a lot of time poking around in European perceptions of American culture, particularly theater. It also addresses the disconnect between European ideals of America and the actuality of the young country, the naiveté of aristocrats turned homesteaders, the choice of fidelity in marriage, and the nature of friendships.

The cast of characters are flawed, struggling, vaguely triumphant but not heroic, perhaps meant to mimic protagonist Maryna's famous tragic roles. All of them feel a bit grey, a bit forced, like type-actors on a stage. Unlike the popular Shakespearian roles, there is not a solid, definite end to this story. It fades to grey with Maryna growing old on stage, no mention of whether her husband has reconciled his cravings, no word of whether our heroine has found life or tied of it.

The whole book was slightly grey and flat, with stream-of-conciousness monologue that lasted pages unbroken even by paragraphs. These were interspersed with journal entries, letters, and more typical descriptive prose.

I was interested by the storyline and musings of the chief character, but never captivated. Too bad; I was prepared to enjoy it immensely.