Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Lost Booker and The Driver's Seat

I've been meaning to write about the Lost Man Booker ever since I found out about it earlier this year. It's certainly an interesting piece of news in the literary world. If you're not aware of it, the Man Booker Prize began in 1968 as an award for retrospective work. In 1971 it was decided that the prize would be given for the best novel in the year of publication. The award date was also changed from April to November and as a result there was a year's gap when a wealth of fiction published in 1970 was 'lost.' These books were never considered for the prize. Now 40 years later, a panel of judges will choose a short list from a selected group of novels.You can check out the longlist of 22 novels at the Man Booker web page here .

Of all these novels, I've only read two. A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch and a novel I read recently and which I'll be reviewing today, The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark. The novel by Murdoch is as usual when it comes to most of her work, absolutely brilliant. I thought it would definitely get my vote but after reading The Driver's Seat, I'm just not so sure anymore.

The Driver's Seat is such a strange novel that after finishing it I wasn't sure if I liked it or not. But it's not a novel you easily forget after reading it. I soon realised how utterly clever it actually was. It's well-crafted and so original. It's funny that though it's 40 years old, it's never been copied nor has it inspired similar stories in films or other books. It stands alone as a unique piece of work.

The novel is a short one of about 100 pages. It opens with the main protagonist, Lise buying a vibrantly coloured dress and a clashing red and white striped coat at a department store. The salesgirls are horrified. Is Lise crazy or just a little bit flamboyant?  Lise has been working non-stop at an accounting office for 16 years and she's just about to set off on the holiday of a lifetime at an unnamed southern city in Europe. Spark soon reveals that this book will end in Lise's murder but we're not quite sure how it will happen or who among the oddball characters in the book will be responsible. Revealing more would be saying too much about this short novel. I'll just say that this is a murder story of the strangest kind.

Spark's writing is concise, succinct and pitch perfect.  If I had to choose between this novel and A Fairly Honourable Defeat, I would say I prefer the Murdoch novel. But then I do have a soft spot for anything Murdoch. However, considering that she's already won for The Sea, The Sea, I think I'll give my vote to Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat, a somehow neglected piece of work by this fabulous writer. Wickedly unique, it deserves to be read by a new generation. Meanwhile I'm tying to hunt down some of the other books on the longlist, specifically Susan Hill's I'm the King of the Castle which sounds like a good read too. The shortlist will be announced sometime in March.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Chrysalids


If you're up for some sci-fi noir then this is for you. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham was first published in 1955 and calls to mind all those vintage black and white science fiction films from that era. Far from being scary, this book was a fun and exciting read. 

A bleak and primitive society has emerged from the ruins of civilization. It's not quite clear what kind of event devastated the world but it may have been a nuclear disaster. The story is set in Labrador, a province populated by a religiously fervent society that believes in purity of race. Any forms of deviation from the norm in terms of strange plants,crops, animals or humans are either eliminated or banished into the Fringes, a barbaric land bordering Labrador. David, a young boy grows up in this strange society not quite sharing the beliefs of his family and neighbors. He further questions his fleeting faith when his best friend Sophie is discovered and hunted for being a deviant solely because she has six toes on each foot. Apart from all this, David discovers he is able to communicate telepathically  using 'thought-shapes' with a number of other children, some of them even miles away. As years pass the children feel more isolated and grow closer even as the youngest among them emerges with a much stronger power. Their peaceful existence is further shattered when one of them decides to marry a 'norm,' a person unlike themselves, putting them all in danger.

Other people seem so dim, so half-perceived, compared with those whom one knows their thought-shapes; and I don't suppose 'normals', who can never share their thoughts, can understand how we are so much more a part of one another... And we don't have to flounder among the shortcoming of words; it is difficult for us to falsify or pretend a thought even if we want to; on the other hand, it is almost impossible for us to misunderstand one another.

The Chrysalids is also about David growing up and his search for himself and his identity. He ultimately feels he belongs with the other children and people like themselves. 

I was a normal little boy, growing up in a normal way, taking the ways of the world about me for granted. And I kept on like that until the day I met Sophie...It is hindsight that enables me to fix that as the day when my first small doubts started to germinate.

The book also explores themes such as religion, genetic mutation and evolution and you can choose to ponder the author's ideas which were actually ahead of their time. I chose to read this book purely as an entertaining classic science fiction novel and I did enjoy it very much. This is so much better than most contemporary dystopian fiction written today. John Wyndham is a very good writer and I appreciated the way he revealed things piece by piece, building the suspense quite slowly. The characters were very well-drawn especially that of David. The ending was a bit of a Hollywood one but then again I didn't really mind. It was all part of the fun.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Waiting on Wednesday - The Lessons

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly event hosted by Breaking the Spine.

I'm waiting for The Lessons by Naomi Alderman
Release Date: 15 April 2010 (UK)

From Amazon:
Hidden away in an Oxford back street is a crumbling Georgian mansion, unknown to any but the few who possess a key to its unassuming front gate. Its owner is the mercurial, charismatic Mark Winters, whose rackety trust-fund upbringing has left him as troubled and unpredictable as he is wildly promiscuous. Mark gathers around him an impressionable group of students: glamorous Emmanuella, who always has a new boyfriend in tow; Franny and Simon, best friends and occasional lovers; musician Jess, whose calm exterior hides passionate depths. And James, already damaged by Oxford and looking for a group to belong to. For a time they live in a charmed world of learning and parties and love affairs. But university is no grounding for adult life, and when, years later, tragedy strikes they are entirely unprepared. Universal in its themes of ambition, desire and betrayal, this spellbinding novel reflects the truth that the lessons life teaches often come too late.

JoAnn at  Lakeside Musing recently awarded me a Prolific Blogger Award. Thanks so much JoAnn! In turn, I would like to pass this award to Danielle at A Work in Progress. Danielle hardly misses a day of blogging and her content is so varied. She reads all kinds of books and it's always wonderful to stop by her blog and check out what she's currently reading. She is definitely one of the most prolific bloggers I know.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Easter Parade

I feel like I've just been through the wringer with this book, The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. It's gut-wrenching and sad. From its opening sentence you know this isn't going to be a cheerful story, "Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents' divorce."

In spite of that pessimistic first sentence you can see how quickly Yates can just draw you in. You just can't stop reading on. He has a reputation for sad and depressing novels so I knew what I was getting into. Rachel at Book Snob recently hosted a Richard Yates season and my interest was piqued. My only experience with him had been seeing the film Revolutionary Road, a movie I found quite distressing and even unpleasant at times. I certainly didn't want to delve into that book so I asked Rachel to recommend a good place to start with Yates and she mentioned The Easter Parade. I love the cover of this Vintage edition but it is misleading, showing two lovely girls who are obviously happy and having a good time. It's quite contradictory to their actual story.

The Grimes sisters are separated by four years and grow up in various suburbs of New York with their divorced mother. They see their 'newspaper man' father once in a while and on the surface they seem to be quite well-adjusted and normal girls. Beautiful Sarah skips college and goes on to marry an English man who resembles Laurence Olivier. She bears three sons and appears to have a happy and quaint existence. Plain Emily in contrast goes on to get a scholarship from Barnard and have a stable and promising career. However, she never finds the right man and moves from one affair to the next. We follow Emily's life more closely and feel her depression and sorrow when another one of her love affairs fails. Her older sister is more in the background since she seems quite fulfilled but towards the end of the novel we realise that all is not what it seems with Sarah.

This novel offers a microscopic view of two average girls and their search for their little piece of happiness in this world. It's also the story of their own relationship with each other which is one of love, rivalry and jealousy. Each one believes the other to have the more wonderful life. It's ultimately sad to realise that actually neither of them had it.

I'm amazed at how quickly I finished the novel. The pages just flew by and before I'd known it, I'd reached the end of this quiet masterpiece. Yates doesn't mince words. His prose is simple, his sentences are basic and uncomplicated. This just goes to show that you don't have to use big words to be a master writer. I loved the realism of this story, the descriptions and the dialogue. This won't be my last Yates novel but I think I'll need some time before picking up another one. And yes, I may even read Revolutionary Road. I realise that having never read the book, I may have missed so many things in the movie version.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Help

My friend Sandra came over to visit two weeks ago and handed me this book, The Help by Kathyrn Stockett. She had recently read it for her book club and loved it. I'd heard about the book but somehow hadn't felt compelled to get a copy myself. It did turn out to be very good. However, I thought it was also flawed.

The Help is set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi. A young white woman, Skeeter, decides to write a book about the working lives of domestic helpers. Two African-American maids, Aibileen and Minny agree to participate in the risky project. The story is told from the points of view of the three women. Their various accounts are touching, harrowing and also funny. Stockett actually drew on her own experiences growing up in Jacksonville with an African-American maid at home.

"I come home that morning, after I been fired, and stood outside my house with my new work shoes on. The shoes my mama paid a month's worth a light bill for. I guess that's when I understood what shame was and the color of it too. Shame ain't black, like dirt, like I always thought it was. Shame be the color of a new white uniform your mother ironed all night to pay for, white without a smudge or a speck a work-dirt on it."

The book was very alive because of the women's voices, particularly those of Aibileen and Minny, whose colloquial language really jumped from the pages. It almost felt like I was watching a film rather than reading a book. The characters were wonderful and throughout the novel, I was cheering for them on their difficult journey to get the book written and published.

I have only a few gripes about the book. One, throughout the last third of it, Stockett kept scattering different cultural references, mentioning for example, the first time Skeeter hears Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones on the radio or when one of the women uses Shake n' Bake. I thought it was quite forced and a bit annoying. I realise that what she was trying to do was to signify the coming of change in America but  I felt these references were not necessary and were actually a distraction. To top it off, she then informs readers in her afterword that the Bob Dylan song was in reality only released in 1964 and Shake n' Bake hit the shelves in 1965. So what was the point of mentioning such trivial things at all?

Secondly, what was the deal with that naked man? About halfway through the book, some strange white naked guy harasses Minny and her employer at home. They violently defend themselves and send him back into the woods but nothing is ever said about him again. So is that a normal occurrence in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi? I thought that was a weird scene and a strange way to show the strength of those women.

Apart from my gripes above, I also felt that the book could have been shorter. There were quite a few unnecessary scenes and repetitive stories. These flaws however are minor and could have been corrected by a thorough editor. In spite of this, I still think The Help is a great read. It's riveting and compulsively readable. I also have to admit that for a first time author, it's a wonderful debut and Stockett should be proud. She's definitely a writer we should keep our eye on in the future. I do hope she gets a better editor for her next book though.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Teaser Tuesdays - The Chrysalids


Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading .

Quote two sentences from the book you're currently reading:

'I didn't know,' I told her. 'I'd no idea she was one of us.'
Rosalind put her hands to her face, finger-tips on her temples. She shook her head slightly and looked at me from disturbed eyes.
'She isn't,' she said. 'Something like us, but not one of us. None of us could command like that. She's something much more than we are.'

The Chyrsalids by John Wyndham, page 76

Monday, February 15, 2010

Little Women - Read the Book/See the Movie

I read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott for the first time last year and I adored it. I thought it was a wonderful book and I listed it as one of my top ten reads of  2009. I saw the film with Winona Ryder years ago and decided to revisit it again as part of the Read the Book/See the Movie Challenge hosted by C.B. James.

I can truly say that both the film and the book are wonderful. Little Women (1994), the movie, is one of those films that you can revisit again and again preferably at Christmas time. The book and the film open on Christmas eve and there are lots of snow and ice skating scenes that somehow it seems appropriate family viewing for the yuletide season. The perfect movie to watch curled up on the couch with a cup of tea. The acting by a stellar cast was excellent. Susan Sarandon was the perfect Mamie and her daughters are played superbly by Ryder, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes and Trini Alvarado.

If you want a richer experience then read the book before seeing the film. You'll get to know the characters so much more. My one gripe is that Jo didn't end up with Laurie. I never expected the ending when reading the book because I'd forgotten about the film version. I did so want her to marry Laurie especially since he was madly in love with her. The feeling was reinforced when I saw the movie. I mean honestly, who can resist Christian Bale?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Miss Buncle's Book

Miss Buncle's Book by D.E. Stevenson is the first Persephone I've read this year and what a fabulous one it is. This is one of those perfectly unique stories because it's a book within a book.

Barbara Buncle, a fortyish awkward spinster is suddenly encountering some money troubles and decides to write a book to supplement her income. Claiming she's unimaginative, she writes about the things she knows which are mainly the people in her small village of Silverstream. She changes the village name to Copperfield and renames all her neighbors. However, she describes them exactly as they are up to the infinitesimal details, even mentioning the wig and false teeth that Mrs.Carter wears and the number of hairs on the facial mole of Ms.King. The book becomes a bestseller and it doesn't take long for most of the villagers to spot themselves in the narrative. Infuriated, they determine to discover the identity of the writer who calls himself  'John Smith' never suspecting that it's just Miss Buncle.

(a photo of D.E. Stevenson from the Persephone Post)

I thought this book was a lot of fun and very endearing. Miss Buncle, though considered an idiot by her neighbors is in truth a smart and kind woman who also finds love in the novel. A charming, whimsical and easy read perfect for a holiday or a rainy day. Many people have compared it to the Persephone Classic Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day but I actually enjoyed this one so much more and I'd love to read the sequels if only they were readily available.

D.E. Stevenson is a largely forgotten Scottish author who had a very successful writing career between 1923 and 1970. She wrote 45 novels most of them bestsellers in the United States and the UK. Last year saw the rerelease of two of her novels, Miss Buncle's Book from Persephone and Miss Tim of the Regiment from Bloomsbury. Miss Buncle's Book is currently one of the top ten bestsellers at Persephone.

If you have read the book, check out this hilarious link showing what it would be like if the characters of Miss Buncle's Book were all in Facebook or in this case, Bunclebook. (Click here). There's spoilers there so if you haven't read the novel, then check out Austenbook by DeeDee Baldwin instead.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

J.D. Salinger's Rare Photos

Today I came across these rare photographs of J.D. Salinger and his daughter Margaret at the Times Online. It shows another side of this reclusive writer. For more photos go here .

How can I describe the impact that The Catcher in the Rye had on me at the age of fourteen? I borrowed the book from the library, not knowing anything about it. I was attracted to its plain cover and I was intrigued that there were no blurbs on it nor any description of its plot. Holden Caulfield ensnared me from that first sentence....

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

I loved the book so much that I never returned that copy to the library. I told them I'd lost it. I didn't want to buy a new copy from the bookstore...I wanted THE copy I had read that first time. Nothing else would do. Thanks J.D...for the books and for Holden.

Teaser Tuesdays - The Help


Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading .

Quote two sentences from the book you're currently reading:

Taking care a white babies, that's what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mama even get out a bed in the morning.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett, page 1

Saturday, February 6, 2010

An Interview with Elinor Lipman

Recently I reviewed the novel, The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman (see here ). I enjoyed it so much that I contacted the author and requested a mini-interview. Imagine my surprise when she promptly agreed. So I'm very excited to be posting my first ever blog interview and I'm even more thrilled that it's an author of such stature as Elinor Lipman.

Lipman was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1950. Her first book in 1988 was Into Love and Out Again, a book of seven short stories that intertwined. Then She Found Me, her first novel was published in 1990 and has recently been made into a movie with Helen Hunt. Since then Lipman has published eight more books and won several awards.

Lipman has taught writing at Simmons, Smith and Hampshire colleges which are all in Massachusetts. She lives in Northhampton, Massachusetts but she also spends a lot of time in Manhattan. 

The Interview:

In my recent review of your book, The Inn at Lake Devine, one of my readers commented that he thought your books were considered "chick-lit" and that's why he's never picked up any of your novels. I don't agree with this but I can see why people would think so at first glance. I do think you are certainly unique among the current contemporary novelists because of your humour. However, there was also a strong message about growing up Jewish in the book, The Inn at Lake Devine, beneath the comedy. How would you yourself classify your novels?
He must be a shallow fellow! You tell that guy that no one who's read any of my work has ever described it as chick-lit. Will I be forced to toot my own horn here? Okay, if you insist. I'll immodestly report that My Latest Grievance won the Paterson Fiction Prize in the US, described as "awarded to the book the judges deemed the best work of fiction of the year." I've also won the New England Book Award for fiction in 2001. I've been a judge for the National Book Award in 2008 and the National Endowment for the Arts Panel for Fiction and Creative Nonfiction. Very respectable! An editor of mine classified my novels as "romantic comedy for intelligent adults," which I think is a nice place to be.        

Of all your books, which one is your favorite and why?  
The newest and latest book is always my favorite, in this case, The Family Man.  It's set in Manhattan and my main character is gay, both firsts for me, and its brought me new readers and I love it when people read it and say, "Now I wish MY father were gay." Another reason it's okay to favor the latest is because I always hope the new one is better than the last.


Though I have yet to read the Family Man, I've read several reviewers mention that Henry, the gay father in the book, is the best character you've ever written. What do you think makes him so appealing to readers?   
He's kind, generous, tolerant, courtly and a doting father, none of which I give myself credit for. He just came into being.  I think people like the fact that he gets rewarded, and that reward is personal happiness. I named the book "The Family Man," as a compliment to him since he personifies old-fashioned values.

I loved the character of Natalie in The Inn at Lake Devine. Is her character based on your own self and your own experiences growing up as a Jewish girl in the 60s?  In the beginning of the book, the Marx family receives the letter from the restricted hotel with the words,"...the people who return year after year and feel most comfortable here are Gentiles." That's actually a direct quote from a letter my parents got from The Lake Dunmore Hotel. There, I've said it!  I usually don't name the real place, but it burned down circa 1960. This was pre-Civil Rights act of 1964,  when such discrimination was tolerated.  After that, though, the story and characters are all imagined. Natalie and Frederica, the narrator from My Latest Grievance, are the teenagers I wish I had been--cheekier and braver.

Your dialogue and the characterizations of all your characters even the supporting cast are so realistic that I wonder if you draw on people you know and real life conversations for your novels?  I don't. I may borrow an expression or extrapolate from something I see in the newspaper, but I make it all up.

What is your writing routine?
I try to write 500 words a day when I'm not on hiatus.  I like to be at my computer by 8 a.m. or else I feel like a slacker.

What are you working on right now?  Some essays. Many of my essays have already been published, but there are some new ones I'm contemplating to round out what I'd like to be a collection. And I have about 150 pages of a new novel that is giving me some trouble.  I'm giving it a rest.

Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes.  I told my mother when I was little that I wanted to grow up to be a famous poem.  (yes, "poem."  Not a typo.)  Still, I didn't take my first fiction writing class until I was 28.  Before that, I did journalism of varying unglamorous sorts, such as managing editor for The Massachusetts Teacher.  

You've been compared to P.G. Wodehouse and even Larry David, both brilliant in comedy. Is it difficult to write comedic situations?  It isn't for me. The comedic part is somewhat accidental. I just write what I want to report, or maybe what I find to be poignant, and later discover that a particular line I meant to be wry, readers find to be funny. If I find myself ever reaching for a laugh, I cut that line. The humor has to be organic, not a joke. It always surprises me when I'm reading aloud at a bookstore what the audience laughs at--but I love when they do that. And next time I head out for a reading, I choose what will get laughs, even if I don't quite see what's so funny. Somewhere along the line I realized that what I find to be poignant or quirky or worth noting, other people find funny. Or, as one audience member pointed out to me--it's a laugh over something familiar, something close to the bone, a nervous laugh, and that is the definition of a comedy of manners.

What are your favorite novels?
The Republic of Love by Carol Shields,  The Hearts and Lives of Men by Fay Weldon, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott, Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger, Vera: Mrs. Valdimir Nabokov by Stacy Schiff,  Lolita by Nabokov, Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin, Waking the Dead by Scott Spencer,  How I became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely, Indignation by Philip Roth, The Habit of Being (Letters of Flannery O'Connor).

My favorite young adult novel as a kid and teen was Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster.  I'm big fans of these buddies of mine, in alphabetic order:  Anthony Giardina, Tracy Kidder,  Stephen McCauley, Mameve Medwed, Tom Perrotta, Caroline Preston, Cathleen Schine, and Anita Shreve.  

In my recent review, you were delighted that I compared you to Barbara Pym. Are you a fan?  Yes!  In fact, it's been a while since I've read a Pym so I'm going to revisit them all.

Thank you very much to Elinor Lipman for participating in this interview. Her new novel, The Family Man, has been released this month in the UK in its paperback edition. You can find out more about Ms. Lipman on her website

Photo of Elinor Lipman by Gabriel Amadeus Cooney.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

84 Charing Cross Road

Oh, what a lovely little book! 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff was published in 1970 and documents the twenty-year transatlantic correspondence of Hanff and Frank Doel, chief buyer at Marks  & Co. Hanff was a lover of antique and obscure books that were difficult to find in the United States. What started at first as a buyer and seller relationship quickly evolved into a friendship with Doel, his wife and the rest of the staff at Marks & Co. Because of the food shortages in England, Hanff generously sent out food parcels that included eggs and meat. She even sent the girls nylon stockings which interestingly enough were not readily available. Her English friends also sent her lovely homemade presents, books and the recipe for Yorkshire pudding. They discussed a wide variety of topics that included books, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and the Brooklyn Dodgers. 84 Charing Cross Road has been made into a stage play and a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft.

Hanff's spontaneous and feisty personality shines through in her letters and she soon breaks Doel's quiet English reserve.

I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to "I hate to read new books," and I hollered "Comrade!" to whoever owned it before me. (page 7).

In spite of knowing the ending, I still got teary-eyed at the end. This is indeed a precious little book about friendships that can develop even at long distances and the shared love of books. There's a lot of life lessons to be learned from it. It's a book to be savoured and reread a number of times. Highly recommended especially if you're a book lover.
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