Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

It's only natural that I'm always seeing connections between the books I read in succession, though a recent finish--Winter's Tale--really does offer a nice contrast to The Goldfinch. Both are giant books (Goldfinch comes in at 775 pages) and somewhat epic in scope (Winter's Tale more than Goldfinch, though Tartt's novel does cover protagonist Theo's journey from child to adult). But, whereas Winter's Tale was an interminable slog, there's something about Goldfinch that keeps you hooked and reading more--even though Theo becomes an unsympathetic mope.

Goldfinch begins in dramatic fashion. Theo and his mom are heading to a school meeting over an infraction, and with time to kill, they stop inside a New York art museum. The museum is subject to a terrorist bomb attack, which results in Theo's mother's death--and Theo stealing "The Golfinch," a famous painting by Fabritius. From there Theo's life takes a huge downturn, including living with his gambler father in Las Vegas; forming a friendship with Boris, who's all too eager to drink and get high; and dealing in fake art.

Theo is immediately sympathetic. He's young and his life is suddenly upturned, but he has few people to offer support or stability. His family is so absent that he lives with a rich childhood friend (and his family) immediately after his mother's death. His dad is drunk and uninvolved at best, and it's easy to see how Theo soon falls into alcohol and drug abuse at an early age. What was fascinating to me, though, was that at some point you lose much of your sympathy for Theo. His life has been comprised of a terrible set of tragedies, but he also opts to take the easy way out--excessive drug use, illegal activities, hiding rather than presenting the truth.

But, through it all, I wanted to know what happened. The theft of the painting hangs at the edges of all that happens, periodically haunting the reader (and always haunting Theo) whenever you start to forget about it. And though Boris is nothing but trouble, you can't help but grin at his indefatigable nature.

Though the very end drug on a bit (lots of dialogue and philosophical musing), I was still surprised at how quick a read 775 pages could be.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

"Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet" by John Bradshaw

My husband and I love our two cats. Our phones and Ipad are filled with nothing but adorable cat photos. We proudly whip out the photos to brag to family and friends. So I thought Cat Sense would be perfect: a way to better understand my furry friends in order to make their lives (and my life) even better.

And there are some great and fascinating parts of Cat Sense. One of the most interesting was Bradshaw's discussion of the future of the house cat. Our well-intentioned programs aimed at neutering as many cats as possible has a dangerous downside: the only cats who are reproducing are those most shy or aggressive around humans, those least socialized and least likely to be caught. We're thus "naturally selecting" cats for those traits least desirable to humans, making future generations of cats likely to be worse--not better--pets. Unlike dogs, which have been bred for centuries to develop certain human-appropriate skills or personalities, we've made no such efforts with cats. And because cats already naturally have traits that are "undesirable" (liking to roam; the prey instinct; no natural affinity for socializing with other animals), the very future of the cat may be in danger.

Take my two cats. Both are somewhat unusual in that each is very friendly, even to strangers; they actively greet people at the door. The older of the two is a "momma's girl"--though she's amiable to everyone, she's particularly attached to me, and if I'm in the room, I get all the attention. She can easily switch from wanting love to wanting to playfight (with claws), and though the coming change is easily apparent to me, strangers can be surprised. And she is terrified of young, rowdy children. So she's a good cat (well, I think she's perfect), but perhaps not ideal for everyone.

The second our cats is probably the "ideal" type cat. He's friendly to everyone, even small children (he'll let the neighbor girls pick him up in a rather undignified manner without any fuss). He gives love and attention freely and will sit in the lap of anyone who's available. He doesn't run or hide; is docile when picked up; and never bites or scratches. But, of course, he had been neutered before we adopted him (and even if he hadn't, we would have done it immediately). And if he hadn't been neutered, it's possible his laid back behavior would have been masked behind raging male hormones. So we're left with a cat who would make an ideal pet for most families being taken out of the gene pool--but it doesn't seem like there's much of a better option.

Bradshaw also includes some interesting tidbits about cat behavior. For example, I always assumed my two cats, which were both adopted as adults from shelters, had been strays. But Bradshaw points out that cats not socialized with humans at a young age will never be comfortable with human company, so my cats' high amiability and friendliness would suggest they did have such positive exposure. Or, he points out that cats' "meow" is largely a reaction to human company--feral cats rarely vocalize. Instead, cats have learned to direct their meows as a way to get human attention (something one of my cats uses to her advantage at an annoyingly high rate!).

Unfortunately, though there's some great information, Bradshaw doesn't know how to keep an audience's attention. Far, far too much time is spent hypothesizing on the evolutionary origins of the domestic cat and the banalities of cat anatomy. These sections feel like a textbook and are endlessly repetitive. I had hoped for more insight into cat behavior (why one of my cats goes outside then wants right back in, then wants out again; or why the other cat will, out of nowhere, dash across the house like she's being attacked) and more insight into how I could be a better "parent," but there was little to that effect. Long sections were incredibly dull, which is why I took several months to actually finish the book.

Thought there's some great tidbits hidden in the tedious, a long essay would probably be more enjoyable to read than the entire book.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

"Vampires in the Lemon Grove" by Karen Russell

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is just up my alley: a collection of weird, off-beat sci-fi/fantasy short stories. All are creepy because they combine our world with something other-worldly and thus ask how we would respond in such a situation.

My favorite was "Reeling for an Empire," in which young Japanese girls are sold as factory workers, only to be given a drink which turns them into human silkworms. They are confined in a factory where they have no choice but to pull out their thread each day or die. I think this one appealed to me because of the way it reflects our fear of our bodies not being our own, something I can relate to as I'm currently pregnant. And though my pregnancy is much desired and wanted--whereas the girls' condition is not--I can still understand the frustration of not feeling in charge of your own physical self, of feeling your body as something different from "you" for the first time.

But, truthfully, all the stories were fabulous, with the last two, 'The New Veterans" and "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis," especially affecting. "The New Veterans" takes the idea of psychosomatic pain to a new level as a massage therapist works to literally knead out a soldier's war trauma from his tattoo. The last piece makes scarecrows the most terrifying I've ever seen them.

"The Barn at the End of Our Term" is the most absurd. It takes place on a horse farm, where half the horses are embodied by former U.S. presidents. It answers a great question no one has ever asked: what would it be like to get a bunch of our former presidents together and force them to live in horses' bodies?

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is the perfect kind of new horror. It's terrifying and strange without ever going too far beyond the understandable.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

"Winter's Tale" by Mark Helprin

Things to know before choosing to read Winter's Tale:
1. It's 750 pages long.
2. It's nothing like the movie trailer. It's nothing like the opposite of the movie trailer.
3. It's not fantasy--maybe magical realism, in its least attractive sense.
4. Probably not worth it.

So, my history in choosing to read and finish this book: Like most people, I'd seen the trailer for the movie version with Colin Farrel and Sybil from Downton Abbey. The movie looked terrible--another cheesy period love story. But, then, I read a post by Neil Gaiman (whom I admire) where he bemoaned the romance-focused trailer and highly praised the actual movie and the novel on which the film is based. I still didn't want to see the movie, but Gaiman said I'd like the story if I liked fantasy, so I reserved the book.

Then the book arrived. And it was enormous. And I generally avoid enormous books because I feel that life is too short not to read as widely as I can. Nonetheless, I decided to feel out the reviews--which were largely terrible. But, those terrible reviews seemed to all come from book club members whose club chose the book based on the trailer. Feeling all superior and high-minded, I took their criticism as assurance that I (of quality literary tastes), would love the novel.

Where to begin? Well, if you did choose Winter's Tale for the movie trailer, you'll certainly be disappointed. The "romance" between Peter Lake and Beverly Penn last perhaps fifty pages early on. Then Beverly dies and is gone. Peter Lake jumps back in at the end. And those fifty pages are pretty dull in terms of emotional romance. It's love at first sight. Beverly's a weirdo who likes the cold but is petulant like a child. She has consumption because apparently consumption is the most romantic way to die ever (and all those Lurlene McDaniel books I read as a kid thought it was cancer. Pshaw.). She says weird things about constellations and animals, but unless I missed something, her rambling is meaningless.

What else? Well, there's Hardesty with his gold plate and a supreme mission from his father--which gets lost and forgotten most of the book. He falls in love (at first sight! what a coincidence!) with Virginia. Also, there's Asbury and Christiana, who shake it up and fall in love at first hearing of voice. They all work for a big New York City newspaper.

The last third of the book takes place in present day (well, leading up to the millennium), but the setting feels indistinguishable from the first third, which takes place a hundred years earlier. For example, people don't seem to use phones or computers. Hell, a character runs for mayor and wins by talking about how awesome the winter is.

Speaking of which, the entire book is largely a love story for a) the winter and b) New York City. So if you don't think both of these are the end-all-be-all, be wary. Because apparently in this world (so I guess the book really is fantasy) when we get crazy terrible winters, everyone loves to go outside and ice skate and eat warm food and take sleigh rides (I mean, literally, a family goes and gets a horse-drawn sleigh. In NYC in 1999.).

There's also a kinda magical white horse. And an immortal (?) guy who wants to build a bridge out of light? Did I miss the section where any of this made sense?

With the possible exception of Peter Lake, there's no emotional connection to any of the characters. And the plot feels utterly random and meandering, with characters and time periods all feeling essentially the same.

That's not to say there aren't some enjoyable sections, if you can ignore all the above. Reading about Peter Lake and his fight against Pearly Soames and his gang was largely interesting. I liked the mysterious Lake of the Coheeries and its characterization. There were certainly individual pieces that could have worked.

But, overall, I hated it. Maybe I missed the meaning because I skimmed a lot, just wanting to finish. I shouldn't have been so stubborn, and I should have just given up, but I didn't, maybe just so I could write a rambling crticism.

It's true that it's far, far easier to condemn than praise. Condemning is easy. But, hell, the book was long enough that I feel sufficiently justified. :)