Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Literary Puzzle of One Family's Insanity

Kirsten Menger-Anderson's "Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain" traces one New York City family from their arrival in New York in the early 17th century to the modern day. But the family history has a twist--all of the family members share two things--a medical curiosity the leads them to become doctors and a tendency to go crazy. As Menger-Anderson traces the family through history in short vignettes, the depths of the family's insanity becomes clear, as does the fact that no one can escape it. 

Menger-Anderson's story is intriguing, and the author has a style that keeps you reading to the very end. Each short story begins with a puzzle--why are these people in this situation--and then quickly builds to a climax that keeps you asking more questions. The author takes different approaches to introduce the central family in each story, and each individual's story adds to the overall family puzzle. 

I really enjoyed this book, and I often enjoy interwoven short stories. But this book may not be for everyone--the narrative thread is only loosely carried from story to story and some of the characters are not very likable. But I would recommend this book--it's a great thinking story.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Twilight--Entertaining, but Not Great

After several years of bugging by my younger sister, and all of the recent media hype, I finally broke down and read "Twilight" the first book in Stephanie Meyer's wildly popular Twilight Saga. After reading almost 500 pages in less than a week, I have a couple of things to say about Twilight. 

1. It really does pull you in. Yes, there are parts of the book that are cheesy, and after a while you do get tired of hearing the vampire and teenage girl confess their love for each other, over, and over, and OVER again. But there is something about their pure teenage love that is kind of cute, in the same way that teen love is cute in teen movies. 

2. There could be more character development. Both of the main characters, Edward and Bella, are pretty flat--Edward is perfect and Bella is swoony. But they're not overly annoying. I will be interested to see if they're still not annoying in three books. 

3. Meyer uses a number of elements from other vampire books--especially stuff from Anne Rice, that I thought was a nice homage. I love Rice's vampire books, and it was good to see a tribute here. 

Overall, I thought Twilight was okay. I didn't love it, but it did keep me reading, and I've been known to put down bad books. I will likely read the other three books in the series, and I'm not a tween. This is good clean vampire fun--worth a read by vampire fans and young readers.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Something Different from Anita Shreve--Testimony

I'm a big fan of Anita Shreve, and I've read all of her books. When I saw her newest novel, Testimony, in stores I picked it up immediately. What I discovered was that Testimony is a story different from Shreve's other novels. Most of her novels deal with a woman who falls in love in some life altering way--but Testimony is definitely different. 

Testimony still deals with a life changing event--but instead of love its a sex scandal at a tony private school. The book uses short passages from about a dozen characters connected to the scandal in different ways to reveal how it happened and its repercussions. Even though the scandal seems pretty straightforward from the start, there are some twists that happen through the course of the narrative that make the story much deeper than a ripped-from-the-headlines teen sex scandal story. In Shreve's usual style, Testimony keeps you turning the pages--I didn't want to put this book down. 

I will warn readers that there are some graphic scenes in this novel--it does deal with a sex scandal. I enjoyed the book overall, but I was a little disappointed since I had enjoyed Shreve's earlier novels so much and was hoping for more of the same. But overall I think this book is worth reading--its a good story about the consequences of seemingly harmless actions.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Patrick Taylor's "An Irish Country Christmas"--Light Holiday Reading Fun

Patrick Taylor's "An Irish Country Christmas" is a tale of a fictional town in Northern Ireland at--you guessed it--Christmastime, 1964. The town is picturesque, full of all of the characters you would expect to find in Ireland, and amazingly, without any religious strife. The novel focuses on two country doctors and their quiet lives. 

Overall, this book is a slow, but enjoyable read. It really captures the spirit of a small town at Christmastime--you can almost see the Norman Rockwell paintings (even though Rockwell is American, not Irish). But it is SLOW. The whole book covers a period of less than a month and it's almost 500 pages long. You won't have any trouble understanding what is going on in this book if you haven't read the previous two in the series, because the author seems to recap everything from the two earlier books.  But the discussion of medical techniques and patient care feels authentic, since much of it is based on the author's experience as a country doctor in Ireland during the same period.

I would recommend this book to someone looking for a light, holiday themed read. But it's definitely lightweight, lighthearted material.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Laurel Conrad's "The Four Seasons"

Laurel Corona's "The Four Seasons" tells the story of two orphaned girls who are brought up in a cloistered girls only home/school in 18th century Venice. The specialty of the school is music--and when Vivaldi, the great 18th Century composer--shows up at the school and recognizes the girls' talents, their worlds are turned upside down. The novel follows the girls for almost 40 years as their lives change and intersect with Vivaldi's. 

Corona's story is interesting, but underdeveloped. She picks a rich historical period, and she lovingly describes both Venice and the music which fills her novel, but she has a harder time with characters. Most of the characters--including the two heroines--are flat, one dimensional, and frankly, a little dull. I kept expecting one of them to do something unexpected--it is VENICE after all--but they are both just so good, and unwilling to stand up against the world. I know a lot of this characterization is what was "expected" of women during that period, but this is a NOVEL and it would be good to have some excitement. Without real excitement, the novel seems to plod along at times, simply telling the passage of time and not a story. 

If half stars were an option, I probably would have given this book 3.5 stars, since I did enjoy most of the story. But it can be slow at times and its not the best written historical fiction I've ever read. I would recommend this book to Vivaldi fans, fans of the period, or Venice fans (yes there are courtesans).

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Arawad Adiga's "The White Tiger"--Winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize

Arawad Adiga's "The White Tiger" is a fascinating story about the underworld of modern India. Unlike the India that is common in Bollywood films and the Western media, "The White Tiger" creates a portrait of a country that is brutal, corrupt, and cut throat. The narrator Balram separates Indians into two groups--the rich and the rest--and describes how he realizes its worth sacrificing everything to escape poverty and become one of the wealthy. 

The novel is written as a series of seven long letters from Balram to the Premier of China. This unconventional style took a little getting used to, but after I did the novel was very gripping. Agida's style is sharp--he often uses the names of his characters or objects to ridicule them--but you also can really understand Balram's frustrations. 

I would recommend this book to someone who wants to get a different perspective on modern India--one that isn't exclusively focused on shiny new skyscrapers and outsourcing. The hunger of the characters in this novel is alarming--you can see why India has quickly become a challenger on the global stage.