Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being Review

A Tale for the Time Being - Ruth Ozeki


I wish I could just say GO READ THIS BOOK RIGHT NOW, but that's not terribly substantive and I suppose I owe you more than that.

 On the cost of a small island somewhere in Western Canada a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, inside a Hello Kitty lunch box washes up.It turns out to be the diary of a Japanese teenager named Nao. Nao has a lot to be depressed about--she's viciously bullied by her classmates, she lives in a small two-room apartment in the seedy part of Tokyo, and her father keeps trying to kill himself. But she finds some solace in her great-grandmother, Jiko, who is a 104(ish) year-old anarchist, feminist, Zen Buddhist nun. The story is told in alternating chapters following Nao and Ruth, the woman who finds the washed-up diary as she tries to find out more about Nao, whether she is real, and where she is now.

As you might've suspected, the Ruth of the book is actually Ruth, the author. Ozeki basically wrote herself and her husband (and perhaps some acquaintances?) into the book. Which I would usually find kind of lazy and self-indulgent like, "Really? You couldn't think of any other character?" BUT, I read an interview with Ozeki and where she mentions that she "auditioned" a number of characters, writing complete drafts with them, before realizing that the character that worked best was herself. So...I guess I'll give her a pass. Especially because the character-Ruth is well done and she doesn't try to hide it by giving her and her husband different names.

Anyway, I was initially way more interested in the Nao parts than the Ruth parts and so at first I was just rushing through Ruth to get back to Nao and I kept wondering why we even needed the Ruth bits in the first place. But as the story progressed, the Ruth parts became more interesting and more integral to Nao's story.

As I said though, I loved this book. Despite any initial complaints, the book really drew me in. Ozeki creates this great contrast between the cruelty and beauty of the world. Nao's story is at the same time charming and heartbreaking. There were times in this book where I was close to tears, which is a big deal because I'm not a cryer The settings are vivid and real--from Tokyo's Akihabara Electric Town to Jiko's mountain, Buddhist retreat, to Ruth's isolated, island home. It explores the meaning of the present by intersecting the past, present, and future, and pulls everything together in an elegant way with a definite, but also slightly ambiguous, ending.

I'd say more but a) It's been a while since I finished the book (school has this nasty habit of getting in the way) and b) I don't want to say too much because it really is a book you should discover on your own. Which brings me to my next point: READ IT. 

I was really on the fence on whether I should give this book a full 5/5, because on the one hand I absolutely loved it, but on the other hand there were a few elements that didn't quite fit as well as the rest...but I figured that since this was the first book I even considered giving a 5 to, I should trust my gut and there we have it, the first 5/5 Fancies.

Read a-likes: After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Middlesteins Review

The Middlesteins - Jami Attenberg



So, you know how you never actually trust those blubs on the back (and front, and side flap, and first five pages) of a book? Because they're all probably very expensive lies? I mean, does anyone actually, seriously consider them when you pick up a book ? Right, so I always kinda sorta scan over them just because they're there and when you know how to read, it's hard to not-read something that's there (I highly recommend GRRM's blurb on The Magicians, though, because you can tell how obviously bitter he is about that Hugo award in 2001 (jk, ilu George, plz don't ever hate me)). But I have to say, if you believe just one book-blurb in your entire life, believe Jonathan Franzen's blurb on The Middlesteins. It's right there, smack-dab on the cover and basically sums up exactly how I feel about this book.

So. Edie Middlestein is morbidly obese. Very literally. She is obese to a morbid extent. She has diabetes, has already had two surgeries in her legs, her doctor is hinting she may need a bypass, and she's still hitting up MickyD's, Burger King, and a Chinese restaurant all in one afternoon. At sixty-soemthing-ish, she quite frankly, doesn't seem to care. But when her husband of over thirty years leaver her, her children (and children-in-law) rush in to fill the vacuum of caring for her. Or at least, the motions of care. Despite their awkwardness and emotional distance, they all try to come together to help their mother. But the question remains whether you can change someone who doesn't want to change.

This is another one of those books that takes your from point-of-view to point-of-view so that you form a more rounded opinion of each character and are not shaped by the other characters' biases. For instance, when Edie's husband, Richard, first leaves her, naturally I assume he's some kind of terrible person. But then we get Richard's POV and we see that she was constantly criticizing and hounding him and that there hasn't been any love-loss between them for years.

The one thing I didn't like was that sometimes Attenberg jumps around too much without really settling you into it. There are chapters titled like "Edie, 241 pounds (or some other weight)" and that's our only frame of reference for the chapter at least until a page or two in, which made it hard to orient oneself in how old the characters were supposed to be at that time. She also had the tendency to trail off into extended flash-forwards, which sometimes worked, and sometimes didn't. On the one hand, it provided insight in to the characters' futures and how the events of the present (past) affected them in the long run. On the other hand, it sometimes meandered too far from the story going on at the moment and made it hard to jump back into the present and keep track of what was the present and what was the future.

I'm going to quote Franzen's blurb here because he basically said it exactly how I would have: "The Middlesteins had me from its very first pages, but it wasn't until its final pages that I fully appreciated the range of Attenberg's sympathy and the artistry of her storytelling."

This book really did grab me from the very first pages--initially, I wasn't sure if I was interested in checking it out,  but then I skimmed the first couple lines and I absolutely had to read more. And while the whole book was good throughout, it was really elevated by the ending.

4/5 big, fat Fancies.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Kind of Kin Review

 Kind of Kin - Rilla Askew



I keep doing this thing where I write up a bunch of stuff and then somehow it all gets deleted on blogger and I have to start over and I know I should just write it all on Word first, but apparently I'm an idiot, and didn't.

Okay, so on to the book. I read this right after I read Into the Beautiful North (which I will review later -- I'm going to an author reading at the end of the month and want to see that first), which was interesting because I was totally not going for an illegal immigrant theme, that's just how my library holds worked out. So, they both take on different points of view and also different tones, on the subject of undocumented immigrants (specifically Mexican) in the United States, which has been one of those ever-present issues for as far back as our election memories go.

Kind of Kin has a whole clusterchuck of plot threads running around, which is all triggered by the passing of a new Oklahoma law that felon-izes the harboring of illegal immigrants. So, Bob Brown, father to Sweet Georgia Brown and sole guardian of ten-year-old Dustin Robert, is arrested for hiding a group of illegals immigrants on his farm. Dustin is sent to live with his Aunt Sweet and her Dudley Dursley-of-a-son, Carl Albert. He runs away to help Luis, the sole escapee of the raid on Bob's farm, get across the state to find his sons. Of course, he doesn't tell anyone and the police and media are thrown into a frenzy about this missing boy who's grandfather was arrested for harboring illegals. Which doesn't bode well for Oklahoma State Rep Monica Moorehouse, a major proponent of the law, who cares more about her D.C. ambitions than her actual constituents. As if that weren't enough, Aunt Sweet's niece, Misty Dawn shows up with her three-year old daughter and undocumented husband seeking refuge in the midst of the media and police circus that has been left in the wake of Dustin's disappearance.

So, I'm pretty sure harboring an illegal immigrant is already a federal crime, or maybe it's not officially been passed yet? I'm not quite so up on my legal jargon as I decided to go to library school instead of law school. If anyone knows more, please share. Regardless, the premise of the story still stands in that it explores the effects of such a law.

Askew appears to take the side of leniency in terms of undocumented immigrants, but the book itself isn't too preachy (well...aside from the parts with the preacher) and the ending isn't all "AND THAT IS WHY X SHOULD BE Y". It's a hypothetical story that explores the human effects such a law would have, which is why it's such a complex issue. And while there is a resolution of the immediate plot threads, the long-term effects and possibilities are left open.

I feel like I should have more to say on literary quality but I don't remember because I finished this book a while back and only now have time to write about it. I should probably start taking notes (also there was a bunch of other stuff I had to say, but then it all got DELETED and I don't remember what it was about).

Overall, the story had a grip on me--there was definitely a point where I simply could not put it down, and the prose was good, but not particularly memorable. Let's say...a nice, slightly above-average 3.5/5 Fancies?