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The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby
Little Children by Tom Perrotta
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman (started by not finished by end of July)
This entry was inspired by one of the books I read in July, The Polysyllabic Spree, in which Nick Hornby writes about the books he bought and the books he read on a monthly basis. Hornby, of course, was writing for a magazine and got paid for his efforts. But because of his witty descriptions not only of the books he bought and read, but also the events occurring in his life at the time of the buying or reading of said books, I thought I should start documenting my own reading list, maybe reflect a little on the state of the world, the state of books today, or even the state of my life. (I’m going to minimize the “Books bought” section, because I tend to go to the Barnes and Noble and just buy a dozen books every three months or so. But I will document the Books Bought if only one or two were bought at a time, and bought for a specific reason.)
I bought The Storyteller a while ago, pretty much as an impulse buy. It’s a novel that has been translated from the original Spanish, and sounded really cool from the blurb on the back cover. It’s about a guy who recognizes a picture of an old friend of his in a collection of pictures of a remote tribe in the Amazon. This old friend of his, who was his friend from university, is dressed like a Machiguenga and appears to be one of the almost mythical Machiguenga Storytellers (habladores, which literally means “speakers”). So the guy reminisces about his friend Mascarita, and imagines how he could have transitioned from a hothead idealistic young man to becoming (or devolving?) into a member of this tribe that has preserved its way of life from time immemorial. Didn’t that sound cool? In truth it was very confusing at times. The writer writes in the first person at all times, and sometimes the first person is the guy remembering his friend, and sometimes the first person is the ramblings of the supposed storyteller. You get into the rhythm of who’s speaking after a couple of change of the “I” POV, but then the storyteller’s rambling stories are heavily laced with Machiguenga myths about the Sun, the evil Moon, other supernatural beings, and it seems like the Machiguenga only has one name for a guy. It’s like they’re individuals, but not really individuals. It’s like if I talked about my friend John, who I know from the time that we worked together on a project in North Carolina, but he now lives in Seattle, but not to be mistaken with my friend John who lives in Seattle, but was originally from Malaysia, oh and did you hear about my friend John who is living in New York City and is a doctor, and his brother John who died as an infant, not to be mistaken with my other friend John who did not die as an infant but died in a car crash in Istanbul. I mean, like seriously! Enough already! Also when the protagonist reminisces about his time with Mascarita, Mascarita’s conversations are always stilted and really dumb sounding. He says “pal” every other word (which, I suspect means that it was translated from “amigo” or “cabrón” in the original Spanish to “pal” in English). But really, pal, do we go around calling each other “pal” all the time? Even if it was supposed to be a quirk of Mascarita’s (and god knows he sure has a bunch of quirks not the least of which the supposed descent into becoming the Storyteller), couldn’t it have been translated better? It makes me wonder if my problem with this book really is in its translation. Anyway, cool idea, but it didn’t quite do it for me. It took me a while to get through this book even though it’s a fairly slim volume, but of course, during this time we did drive up to Belle River for the family reunion, which was a blast and a nice distraction from finishing this book.
Snow Flower was really, really, really good. I read it in three days. Well, two evenings and a Saturday morning. I stayed up two (work) nights running and finished it on a Saturday morning. I could hardly put it down. Really good writing, very convincing characters, with an ending that left me sobbing. It’s placed in 19th-Century China when two little girls are “old sames” (lao-tong) and carry on a written relationship that lasts their lifetime. The writing is a secret women’s writing (nu shu) which is a real thing that is reputed to be over 1000 years old, for women to keep in touch with their mothers, sisters, and friends. And our two friends write to each other on a fan that passes back and forth, documenting their lives, their joys and sadness. It’s amazing. The whole description of how the girls got their feet bound is really cool. I loved this book so much I can’t hardly remember what else I did (other than work during the day, bummer!), my head was in it for the entire time. And like I said, don’t forget to bring the tissues for the end of the book. It surely made me glad that I wasn’t traveling weekly for work anymore, since I’ve already had quite a few sobbing-on-the-plane-due-to-the-sad-book episodes, thank you very much!
Before the Belle River trip, we went to the Barnes and Noble to try and figure out a birthday present for cousin Pam, and we did end up getting her a gift card (it’s hard to buy books for someone because you don’t know what they already have) and also getting me The Polysyllabic Spree. I wasn’t even supposed to buy a book since my “to read” shelf is wayyy full but I can’t walk into a bookstore and not buy a book! That’s just wrong! Plus we also returned one of Vin’s books Bang the Drum Slowly, which we bought at a B&N quarterly shopping trip, which it turned out, he already had on his shelf. So all in all, a very rewarding trip to the bookstore, because this book is a gem! Hornby’s humour is (as always) spot on, and I wish I could be as cool as he is. He also writes from the insider perspective, and when a writer writes about somebody else’s novel and wishes that they had been the one to write it, doesn’t that just make you want to go and read said book? And if the man hated a book enough not to even finish it, then I’m certainly not going to be in a hurry to go out and buy that book! This is the one book from last month that’s not fiction, even though it is about books, fiction and non-fiction. He makes reading sound like the best thing in the world (which of course, it is!) and inspired me to actually keep track of the books I read since it can also remind me of things that happen in my life. I read this book quickly, and I’m going to use it as a reference list of the books I should read and add to my “to read” shelf. Highly recommended!
Excerpt from the Polysyllabic Spree, Ground Rule 1 from the first of his articles:
“1) I don’t want anyone writing to point out that I spend too much money on books, many of which I will never read. I know that already. I certainly intend to read all of them, more or less. My intentions are good. Anyway, it’s my money. And I’ll bet you do it too.”
Nick (if I may call you Nick), I do it too. I have a shelf and a half full of books that I also intend to read. And I can’t stop myself from buying more books. Thanks for affirming my way of life. 🙂
I kept reading excerpts from the Spree out loud to Vin, interrupting his own reading, I liked this book so much. (Incidentally, Vin is reading it right now as I’m writing this entry). I finished it right before we went for our Pacific Northwest vacation. The days leading up to it were hectic to the max! Running around trying to meet deadlines before going on vacation, clearing out as much work, prioritizing, etc. I didn’t even pack until 30 minutes before we were supposed to leave. I packed and showered in record time! On the plane trip, I started Little Children, which also had been sitting on my “to read” shelf for a while. We’d just seen the movie with Kate Winslet and the leading man Patrick Wilson, who I keep thinking is Jason Vartan but isn’t since I looked it up and I’ve never seen this Patrick Wilson guy or any of the stuff he’s been in before, so really he’s not Jason Vartan, nor is he anybody I recognize, but he kind of looks like someone I should recognize. Don’t you think? Anyway, the movie was good (although Kate’s American accent was a little suspect at times), and so was the book. Reason why I chose to read this book at this point in time? Newsweek called Tom Perrotta “…an American Nick Hornby”. ‘Nuff said! The book was quite good, except I kept focusing on the differences between the book and the movie (where they changed it, etc.). I should have waited a while longer between watching the movie and reading the book, even though Dennis Lehane “..was enthralled by every page, and damn if [he] didn’t find [him]self wishing [he’d] written it”. The pace of the novel was great, and I loved Tom Perrotta’s voice. I didn’t finish it on the plane (I admit, I got distracted by my Sudoku book) and I didn’t hardly touch it during our very active Pacific Northwest trip (there’ll be plenty of blog entries on this later), so I didn’t finish it until after the trip when we were home.
While we were in Vancouver’s Granville Market, we (of course) wound up in several bookstores. I almost bought a cookbook written by the First People (the Native Americans), which I was fascinated by. But I knew that if I bought it, it would just end up on a shelf, never being used, because the ingredients included Huckleberry, Wild Rabbit, and all kinds of other herbs and stuff that I had never heard of before and never in my lifetime will be able to purchase in my neck of the woods. So! This was in a bookstore that sold ONLY cookbooks. Seriously! I also almost bought a book about south east asian cuisine, and the only reason that I didn’t was because it was written by a white guy. No offense, but I don’t think I (a native born and raised Malaysian) should read about my own cuisine and how to make the foods that my family has been making for generations in a book written by a white guy. It stuck in my craw. So we moved on to another bookstore where I purchased Furious Observations of a Blue-Eyed Ojibway (the third volume). It looked funny, and had that local Pacific Northwest flavor that I was looking for without teasing me with cryptic and interesting ingredients that I can’t find here.
The History of Love (which I immediately thought was going to be chick lit) turned out to be a lovely, well-written, serious, introspective novel about love (mothers to children, wives to husbands, men to the “one that got away”, fathers to sons, and so on and so forth) and all of the characters have a connection to a novel called the History of Love that was written before the Holocaust. A 14-year-old girl looks for someone to take away her mother’s sadness since her father’s death, and she is named after all the female characters in the History of Love (Alma), and we learn about this novel, its writer, and its history along the way. It can’t really be summarized without giving everything away. But there is a lot of sadness in this novel. Another book that I could not put down. I really liked it.
I’ll save Fragile Things for next month’s write up since I only just started it before July ended.