Saturday, May 01, 2010

Reading Update

Gradually I am returning to my pre-earthquake reading habits. Today at the library I felt (I think for the first time since getting here) a sense of urgency: I'll be leaving soon and look at all these books I still haven't read! The sensation was a very pleasant one, since I recognized my old self in it.

Incidentally, it's interesting that while my husband also had some trouble starting to read again after the earthquake (though he got back to his usual pace sooner than I did), neither of my kids missed a beat. Both of them complained the night of the earthquake about not having anything to read with them when we slept outside on the soccer field. And both of them were reading normally the next day.

Book #9 of this year was Helen of Troy, by Margaret George. I've read many versions of her story, and this one was quite good. A big issue with Trojan War retellings (though this covers more than the Trojan War; at 600+ pages there is plenty of space for Helen's whole life) is how the author chooses to handle the supernatural elements. George makes them very real to Helen, though she does doubt at times whether the experiences she has had were dreamed. She certainly blames Aphrodite for all of her choices. I kept thinking about Paris and Helen as analogous to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor: a little vapid, a little over-interested in fashion, too little interested in duty and honor. But it was all Aphrodite's fault, so there you go. Here's some information on George's research for this book.

Book #10 was Brick Lane, by Monica Ali, a wonderful novel about Bangaladeshis living London. Like the last book, this one deals with many issues of fate and destiny. Nazneen's mother responds to calls to take her sickly newborn daughter to the city for treatment by saying that nothing should be done to interfere with Fate. "Whatever happens, I accept it. And my child must not waste any energy fighting against Fate. That way, she will be stronger." While Nazneen initially lets things happen to her, and seems as trapped by her arranged marriage and later by her own desires as Helen by Aphrodite, she and her sister, Hasina, do take their lives into their own hands. Hasina's story is much less successfully told than Nazneen's (though Hasina has a very eventful life), since it is entirely narrated through letters from Bangladesh, and I found it difficult to follow all the twists and turns of this character who never seemed quite real to me. Nazneen, on the other hand, is an amazingly real person. I felt as though I knew her intimately and sympathized with all of her emotions and difficulties, even though she could hardly be more different from me. Her husband Chanu is also vividly depicted through Nazneen's eyes, and comes across as alternately maddening and lovable. Chanu imagines himself as extremely well educated and finds life in London to be a huge disappointment, never measuring up to his hopes for himself. He is always holding forth about the "Tragedy of the Immigrant," but the book shows that there is no one tragedy: each character has his or her own, and in addition each character has joys, and there is a lot of humor in the story. This was a beautiful book, free of stereotypes; I entered into a completely unfamiliar world as I read it.

Book #11 was No Time to Wave Goodbye, by Jacquelyn Mitchard. This is the sequel to The Deep End of the Ocean, which I read years ago but which I remember as being beautifully written, almost meditative, and long on character development. I avoided reading it for a long time because it was about the abduction of a three-year-old, but finally did and thought it was excellent. The sequel was not nearly as compelling. In this story, one of the Cappadora children has made a documentary about child abductions, and the book opens at its premiere. Due to the nature of what happens, though, this book is much more fast-paced and it reminded me of a Mary Higgins Clark book, just racing through to the conclusion. I didn't care nearly as much about what happened as I did in the first book. (Also I found it really annoying that the book uses, several times, the phrase Ad hoc, ergo propter hoc instead of Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Nobody at Random House knows that expression?)

Book #12 was Anita Shreve's A Change in Altitude. I picked this up because it was set in Kenya. It's the story of a couple spending a year there in the 70s. They climb Mount Kenya and witness a terrible accident. The rest of the book deals with the way they respond to it as a couple, and particularly the responses of the wife, Margaret. (All of the Shreve books I have read are on this theme of how people react to tragedy.) Margaret is a recognizable type, always agonizing over whether things she experiences represent "the real Africa." The book kept me reading and I thought Shreve handled the setting well.

Here's today's Saturday Review of Books.

1 comment:

JHS. said...

Glad to hear that your life is starting to resemble some sense of normalcy. Can only imagine what you have been through a tiny bit (since I live in Calif. and have felt many, many small to mid-size earthquakes, always wondering if it is "the big one").

JHS
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