Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Fun, Peanuts-style

Back in 2003 artist Tivoli Too unveiled his tribute to the Peanuts creator Charles Schulz at Landmark Plaza in Schulz native Saint Paul. For five summers after Schulz's death in 2000 artists all over Saint Paul designed and displayed individual renditions of Peanuts characters and over two million people from all fifty states flocked to this tribute. The proceeds from the past Peanut statue promotions have funded the Charles M. Schulz fund, established to create and maintain the bronze sculptures. Furthermore, the proceeds will fund scholarships for artists and cartoonists at the College of Visual Arts, the college Schulz attended and later served as an instructor.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Review: C'est la Vie by Suzy Gershman

Suzy had always fantasized about moving to Paris with her husband, but when he dies unexpectedly, she decides to fulfill their dream alone. Here she gives a deliciously conversational chronicle of her first year in Paris and of the dizzying delights and maddening frustrations of learning to be a Parisian.

This is one of the books I found through PaperBack Swap recommendations after reading Entre Nous and giddily requested it hoping for a similarly pleasant experience. It was tough going at first. By page 70 I was thoroughly annoyed with Ms. Gershman because at that point the book read more like a shopping instruction manual with endless mentions of Born to Shop and incessant dropping of names of famous people and brands that began bordering in pretentious. "Is this really who you are, Suzy?" I kept thinking. I get it, this is her life and her social circle, but had it not been for brief glimmers of hope in the form of short entries that actually talked about Paris and the French lifestyle and people unrelated to luxury merchandise and who's who of the Parisian "it" list I would have given up and moved on. I did stick with it though and was rewarded with longer chapters that gave me what I came to Ms. Gershman for - a glimpse of her experience living the French life.
As the book progressed and the chapters got longer and less healfhearted Ms. Gershman's personality began to come through and I began to see something in her that was more than a woman spending away her husband's life insurance money. I could see a practical woman having a hard time but determined to not fall apart, a woman rediscovering and reinventing herself, following her dream and doing it in a foreign country and in a foreign language at that. I liked her spunk and that she had standards and an unfailing sense of humor. I enjoyed her stories about holidays, cooking French deserts for the first time, making new friends and dealing with the internal conflict of nurturing herself and worrying about her son's reaction to her choices. These were real stories and I preferred them to the tales about buying overpriced designer sheets.
This isn't your typical book about starting over in France with the author struggling to make connections outside of the expatriate community or being unreservedly enamored with the French. Ms. Gershman arrived in Paris with a well-established network already in place, she had money, and her lack of fascination with Parisian style is obvious and refreshing. She is unabashedly American and is not trying to blend in. She speaks frankly and in detail about the charm of having an affair and her disenchantment with it, as well as medical issues and the difficulties of navigating the French bureaucratic systems. There is not a gossipy feel like in All You Need to be Impossibly French or the reserved distance like in Entre Nous. It is actually more like Almost French in that the authors see the good and the bad clearly and appreciate France for what it is. I wonder whether these two ladies know each other - they are both freelance journalists and they arrived in Paris at the same time (imagine my surprise when I realized this).
This is a fun book and had the first half been more like the second I would have enjoyed it much more. As it is I would recommend it to those who is moving to Paris or is entertaining the notion, those enjoy shopping, or those who want to see what it's like to live in France. I'm with the last group and some day soon will continue the vicarious adventure.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The New York Times Books Section

The reading list I'm planning for next year will mostly consist of books that are on the NYT Best Seller list this year and so I've been visiting the site quite a bit. Yes, I even have a spreadsheet where I track titles, but I digress. As I've been perusing the list I've also read some articles, become familiar with what's getting released, was thrilled to read a name or a title that I recognized (constantly playing catch-up can be a losing game), learned more about an author or a book I was vaguely interested in from a previous mention and added it to the list. It's a solid resource, as I'm sure many of you know, and there's always something of interest for a bookishly-oriented mind. It's not just reviews, interviews and lists though, there are interesting articles and opinion pieces that rotate so you always have a chance of reading them, such as the Reading and Guilty Pleasure, for example. I myself am constantly making an effort to add more challenging reads to my enormous reading list, and actually read them, and at the same time repeatedly succumb to various temptations (Jeannette Frost's Kat and Bones, anyone?), so this one was definitely something I could relate to. I have even been reading some book reviews in the hopes to absorb some wisdom, don't know if that's working though.
So yes, if you want some quality book-themed reading check out the NYT Books page, it's got excellent potential to occupy you for hours.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Review: Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

Sky piracy is a bit out of Darian Frey’s league. Fate has not been kind to the captain of the airship Ketty Jay—or his motley crew. They are all running from something. So when an opportunity arises to steal a chest of gems from a vulnerable airship, Frey can’t pass it up. It’s an easy take—and the payoff will finally make him a rich man.
But when the attack goes horribly wrong, Frey suddenly finds himself the most wanted man in Vardia, trailed by bounty hunters, the elite Century Knights, and the dread queen of the skies, Trinica Dracken. Frey realizes that they’ve been set up to take a fall but doesn’t know the endgame. And the ultimate answer for captain and crew may lie in the legendary hidden pirate town of Retribution Falls. That’s if they can get there without getting blown out of the sky.

For a long time now I've wanted to read a solid old-fashioned adventure in the traditions of R. L. Stevenson and Jules Vernes, but there didn't seem to be any. I was as if the genre was extinct. So when I read Nataliya's review of Retribution Falls I didn't just put it on the list, I requested it at the library. That was a good call, let me tell you.
From the very first pages it was clear that in addition to the adventure I was after this book was going to give me several other genres. There is fantasy, sci-fi, steampunk, pirates and survive-by-the-seat-of-your-pants action. You would think, how the heck does all that fit into one novel and feel like anything other than a Transformers movie? The answer is simple - little bits at a time. The elements of all these genres are more like fine seasonings in a dish than the main ingredient, and the meat of the story is in the characters and the plot (yes, I have been cooking more than usual lately).
I'm used to seeing novels as either plot- or character-driven and in this case was pleasantly surprised to see a book that has both a plot jam-packed with action and engaging characters who go from a rag-tag bunch of misfists to them all becoming parts of a whole working for one goal, and all, or almost all, growing in the process. Even the main antagonist proved to be more than met the eye at first. I've actually grown quite fond of them all and even though the novel didn't end on a cliff-hanger promising a sequel (very refreshing nowadays when practically every book seems to be part of a series of interconnected installments) I very quickly made a mental note to look up the rest of the Tales of the Ketty Jay. The writing worked too - there was quite a bit of clever humor (Crake with his out-of-place refinement provided the best quips on more than one occasion) and the voices of different characters fit the respective personalities very well. Wooding is without a doubt a talented writer and it comes through in the book.
This novel is definitely a fun ride but as much as I enjoyed the adventures Wooding's exploration of deeper themes such as belonging, living with the consequences of one's actions, and being better than the bottom-feeders by more than a little bit was what kept my interest when the manly descriptions of aircraft and battles got a little bit too much. That and him masterfully keeping up the suspense by revealing secrets in small tidbits with Jez's story, which is by far the most intriguing, being told last. All this gave the story a certain seriousness and depth, which was very welcome in a book where the main characters aren't exactly philosophers pondering the universe.
I think this book can have a very wide appeal, from guys to girls and from readers who want the adventure, the fights and the rough talk every once in a while to those who prefer a bit of quiet introspection on occasion. I myself definitely intend to explore Chris Wooding's work further. If his other books are like this one we may have a winner here.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Review: The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

In a Balkan country mending from years of conflict, Natalia, a young doctor, arrives on a mission of mercy at an orphanage by the sea. By the time she and her lifelong friend Zóra begin to inoculate the children there, she feels age-old superstitions and secrets gathering everywhere around her. Secrets her outwardly cheerful hosts have chosen not to tell her. Secrets involving the strange family digging for something in the surrounding vineyards. Secrets hidden in the landscape itself. But Natalia is also confronting a private, hurtful mystery of her own: the inexplicable circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s recent death. After telling her grandmother that he was on his way to meet Natalia, he instead set off for a ramshackle settlement none of their family had ever heard of and died there alone. A famed physician, her grandfather must have known that he was too ill to travel. Why he left home becomes a riddle Natalia is compelled to unravel.

The Tiger's Wife has been on my radar for a while now due to its notoriety and near-constant presence on the New York Times Best Seller list for months on end. When it eventually came up on the reading list of the book club I joined earlier this year I was glad to finally read it.
One of my favorite things about this book is how realism and fantasy are intertwined almost inseparably, how every plot line is tied inextricably to another and how much it reminded me of the story traditions I grew up with. Obreht is from the Balkans, I am from Ukraine, and while there are obviously differences there are also similarities that ring true, a result of our Slavic roots with a patina of the Ottoman invasion centuries ago, thicker for some, more transparent for others. I could also really see and relate to how she described it in an interview for RFERL:
...there's a concept of "a Balkan story." Even small stories are somehow big, huge. There's a moment in a Balkan story when the line between mythology, legend, and the story become irrelevant. Somehow, that mythology becomes a truth in itself and it becomes a very personal truth. The way in which you receive a story becomes your truth, and then it becomes the truth for the person you're telling the story to. That is very much our way...
I read the novel very quickly and only when it was finished did a thought form in my mind that the book is ultimately about death. This alone didn't faze me, after all I read The Book Thief earlier this year, and it was narrated by Death. What did surprise me though was finding out how young the author is. I could hardly imagine how a woman in her early 20s could have this kind of darkness in her enough to write a book like this. Don't get me wrong, The Tiger's Wife is not depressing by any means (there are a couple novels I read this year alone that were much more depressing), it is rather a matter-of-fact approach that regards death as part of life, sometimes difficult to reconcile oneself with but always present. The subject however is dark nonetheless.
I also very much enjoyed Obreht's writing style. It was proper without being stuffy and easy without being overly conversational. This is a literary novel that avoids boring the reader to tears and instead pulls one along with it through the many subplots until legends unwind into life and people with secrets, fears and hardships. The historical backdrop and very realistic details of family life, which I now know are autobiographical, give richness to these legends, provide a fertile environment for them, ground them and even help develop them better. I didn't know much about the history or culture of the Balkans before reading this book but now I am curious and will most likely look for more books and folklore of the region.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and if you are intimidated by its fame and international acclaim I urge you to disregard those reservations and give it a chance. It is well worth your time. Just don't expect everything to be presented to you neatly tied with a bow on top, you will be expected to make the leaps necessary to gather all the threads together from time to time, and you may even arrive at conclusions that won't match your fellow readers'. This exact thing happened in our book club and made for an interesting discussion.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Anna Reading by Aaron Coberly

I found a picture of this painting on Pinterest and it intrigued me with its air of quiet, and not just because reading is usually a quiet activity. The muted colors and the relaxed posture of the model helped create the peaceful atmosphere and made me want to find out more about the author.
Aaron Coberly is an artist in Seattle, Washington, who specializes in figurative oil painting and most of his portraits are done in one or two sessions. I have looked through the paintings Coberly presents on his website and most of them have that subdued feel to them that appealed to me in Anna Reading, and yes, quite a few are nudes. Mr. Coberly is undoubtedly a talented artist and I'm glad to have stumbled onto his work. Internet is a great thing!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Review: The Broker by John Grisham

In his final hours in the Oval Office, the outgoing President grants a controversial last-minute pardon to Joel Backman, a notorious Washington power broker who has spent the last six years hidden away in a federal prison. What no one knows is that the President issues the pardon only after receiving enormous pressure from the CIA. It seems Backman, in his power broker heyday, may have obtained secrets that compromise the world’s most sophisticated satellite surveillance system. Backman is quietly smuggled out of the country, given a new identity, and a new home in Italy. Eventually, after he has settled into his new life, the CIA will leak his whereabouts to the Israelis, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Saudis. Then the CIA will do what it does best: sit back and watch. The question is not whether Backman will survive—there is no chance of that. The question is, who will kill him?

The last time I read a book by John Grisham was in high school after The Rainmaker with Matt Damon came out and I was on a Grisham kick for a while. I remember liking the pacing of his novels, the characters doing what is right despite the odds being stacked against them, and Grisham's easy writing style that provided enough detail to sympathize with the underdogs but never crossed into too much familiarity. So when I came across the paperback of The Broker memories did their thing and the book came home with me. It sat on the shelf through my well-intentioned "reading schedule" phase, got passed over a couple of times after that until finally I was in the mood for it.
Almost immediately I saw that either my memories were flawed or The Broker didn't fit in with the Grisham novels I read. In the beginning there was a lot of backstory setting the scene for Joel Backman's release from prison. It painted him as a ruthless, greedy man unfamiliar with the very concept of morality, and even as freedom was offered to him after years in solitary confinement in conditions that were clearly meant to break him he accepted it as if it was his due. And then Joel was moved to Italy and with the new clothes and a pair of Armani glasses he seemed to take on a new identity in more than just name - still demanding and knowing exactly what he wanted, he at the same time has acquired an appreciation for the simpler things in life, and seemed to have re-evaluated his past and was determined to live differently. Unfortunately this transformation got almost no page time, it was more or less just there, leaving the reader to arrive at their own conclusions as to how Joel got from point A to point B.
Pacing left much to be desired as well. Events rolled along leisurely for about three quarters of the book with Joel endlessly going from Italian lessons to meals and back, and things started to feel a bit like Groundhog Day, until in a blink of an eye our protagonist transformed from a frustrated tourist into a man of action masterminding his true freedom and once again manipulating some of the highest powers in Washington into doing his bidding. This transition, though not unexpected, was so sudden and swift that it almost gave me whiplash and once again left me with a sense of dissatisfaction.
My favorite scenes in the book were where Joel was shown adjusting to life in Italy. His first attempts to order food in a foreign language, his growing familiarity with Bologna, even his overwhelming drive to learn Italian made him into a sympathetic character despite his thoroughly unsympathetic past. I really could do with more of that because I think it would develop the characters and the book wouldn't feel so much like a chronology of events past and present.
All in all it was a decent read and I was glad for the way things turned out. I just wish it was more fleshed out in every aspect.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Clandestine Book Store: Brazenhead Books

Today I was looking for a book store to tell you about and when I saw an article about Michael Seidenberg's secret Brazenhead Books I couldn't imagine talking about anything else. Judge for yourself: a used book shop in a secret location in New York City that's just begging for you to find it. Do I wish I lived in New York! Here is a short video to prompt googling in the white pages (without any results worth mentioning, I must say):