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Sunday Salon: the TG for Electricity! Post

September 13, 2009

The Sunday Salon.comHello regulars and Sunday Salon-ers; I hope everyone is having a marvelous Sunday. I certainly am-I woke up to all of our electricity on, and so far it’s been completely stable. I’ve suddenly come to appreciate having electricity at my beck and call-on Friday, between 6AM and 6PM, the power was out for ten hours and yesterday it went out just when I was planning on blogging. (Fortunately, my mom and I had a busy day planned, so we just stayed out of the house!) While I was annoyed to not be able to blog over the past two days, it really made me think about all of the people in the world who don’t have my privileges. I don’t want to become trite, but let’s just say that it made me step back for a moment, and give thanks for all of the blessings in my life, including being able to flick on a light or heat food in the microwave whenever I wish.

I read a lot more this week (last week, even though I read quite a few books, they were a bit shorter), but I don’t have a ton of books to discuss. Some I’ve already reviewed, some really deserve their own post, so that narrows it down to six-three fiction and three non!

I began the week by reading Anne Lamott’s Grace (Eventually), which I loved and have already reviewed.

MyMostExcellentYearThen, I finally finished a YA book that I’m hesitant to discuss: My Most Excellent Yearby Steve Kluger. For those who have been following the Nerds Heart YA Tournament, this ended up being the winner! I had won it from Heather of A High and Hidden Place, which she reviewed and loved, so when I saw it win, I grabbed it off the TBR shelf and began. Unfortunately, I had a very different reaction than pretty much every other book blogger. So take this with a grain of salt, remember that everyone else loved it. It took me over half the book to figure out why I not only didn’t love it, but really wanted to just stop reading it. So here it is: I didn’t care about any of the characters. I wanted to, but they all had such perfect lives (even their ‘struggles’ felt quite superficial) I just couldn’t empathise at all. They didn’t feel like real people to me, and I knew that anything they were worried about would end up working out perfectly, and that they’d have a clever quip for it, and that basically they were all the most talented, politically aware and active, loveable high school freshmen ever. (I know that their lives weren’t *really* perfect, that they all had to deal with sad stuff, but the way it was written I couldn’t get into that at all.) There was none of the struggle to figure out who you are, to define yourself and your values and your dreams that I remember from being 14. Also, and this is something that no one else will probably notice, but I was obsessed with joining the Foreign Service for quite awhile, so I know a ton about how US diplomats and diplomacy work. I couldn’t figure out *what* was up with Ale’s family-if her father was ambassador *to* Mexico like it says, that means he’s not Mexican. But if he were the American ambassador to Mexico, he would have only held the post for at most 4 years, and if he were friends with the Clintons he certainly wouldn’t hold that post under Bush. And the Secret Service isn’t responsible for protecting US ambassadors. And US ambassadors are highly unlikely to be friends with a ton of celebrities; they are not in fact rock stars, and they don’t make a bajillion dollars, so I guess Ale’s father was independently wealthy. If, on the other hand, he’s actually the Mexican ambassador to the US, that raises a whole different set of issues. And with Ale constantly mentioning that she’s expected to join the ‘diplomatic corps,’ I had no clue if she meant the American one (which would be called the Foreign Service) or the Mexican one (in which case, why was she so obsessed with US history?). Ok-I’m going to stop now. But I want to point out that I’m a total nerd about diplomacy, so if you’re not like me, you’ll probably enjoy the book more (I kept being jerked out of the story by all of my questions). I can see why everyone else loved it, and I really wish I did too.

Then I read Octavia Butler’s Fledgling, which I loved and am going to devote a whole post to. And I’ve already reviewed my next read, Phantoms in the Brain, so that brings us straight to:

night-of-many-dreamsNight of Many Dreamsby Gail Tsukiyama. Oh dear-I’ve just realised that this post might feel a bit negative. But I promise after this book, I enjoyed the other four I’m going to talk about! :) I’ve read good things about Tsukiyama on various blogs, so when I was at the library, I went into the stacks and picked this one pretty much at random. Because of that, I’m willing to grant that maybe Tsukiyama just had on off-book, and that the rest of her writing is better. But this one was pretty awful. The characters were all complete stereotypes (the two sisters-the pretty one obsessed with movies, the smart one obsessed with books; the mother who’s concerned more about social appearances; the loving aunt who’s strong in her unmarried independence; the faithful servant). Moreover, although the narrator shifts around, all of the voices sound exactly the same-if it wasn’t labelled, I’d have no idea who was supposed to be telling the story. The book jumps from plot point to plot point, spanning years in a very jerky manner, and often going back and forth within a certain ‘time frame’ in a way that just didn’t make sense. Gratuitously sad events, including more than one dead child. The only reason I kept reading was that I was sure it would get better, that maybe Tsukiyama was just setting the stage and then the book would turn around. It didn’t. I might give her another chance eventually, but it’ll take awhile to forget this one. That being said, I read this for the China Challenge, and there was one good point: the details about Hong Kong are neat, especially food-wise, and when the family goes to Macau I get a little sense of that city.

unbelievableNext up is Unbelievable by Stacy Horn, a nonfiction read for the R.I.P. challenge. I read about Horn over at Citizen Reader, and this book about the history of the Duke Parapsychology Lab sounded perfect for R.I.P.! It was interesting, and Horn handled her subject matter with generosity, but I didn’t love this the way I did Ghost Hunters (a history by Deborah Blum) and Will Storr vs. the Supernatural(a memoir by Storr). I think it’s because most of the time, the lab didn’t deal with ghosts. Instead, it was focused on ESP, which is a phenomenon I’m less interested in. But while the subject matter didn’t always entrance me, Horn’s writing style is marvelous. I definitely want to read more of her work.

ChagallAnother nonfiction read comes next; I finally finished Jackie Wullschlager’s hefty biography of Marc Chagall (entitled Chagall). Chagall’s my favourite artist-I first discovered him during a special exhibit the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg hosted. Later, I went to the Moscow Museum of Modern Art only to discover Chagall’s work was ‘abroad.’ But since then, I’ve bought a calendar with his art, and dreamed about getting some prints. That being said, I knew only the bare facts about his life: he was a Russian Jew who emigrated from Russia and lived in Paris. And he did some set designs. Well, let me tell you, I now know much more! :) Unlike most books, where I read 50 pages at a time, I decided to read Chagallone chapter at a time (the chapters are 15-25 pages). I prefer this approach for biographies, because it lets me immerse myself more in the life of a subject (of course, I also almost never read biographies). There was much about this book I loved-there are lots of black-and-white pictures included in the text, so you know what all of Chagall’s friend and family looked like. There’s a generous amount of coloured plates of Chagall’s work as well (although I wish that these had been organised better-I didn’t always know if a painting discussed in the text was included in one of the colour sections, and since there’s no apparent principle behind their order, it took me awhile to find sometimes). And Wullschlager is generous to her subject, and marvelous at describing his milieu. I felt like I was in pre-WWI Paris, with all of the artistic enthusiasm that could muster, and later I felt the devastation of WWII and the displacement of the European Jews who ended up in America. Wullschalger quotes frequently from primary sources-letters between Chagall and Bella (his wife), the memoirs of each, letters from their daughter, etc. That being said, sometimes she seemed to project things a bit. Especially whenever she was describing a photograph-she’d ‘see’ certain emotions in the various people that I certainly didn’t see when looking at the same photograph. I think the reason I read few biographies is this fundamental disconnect-a biographer can’t really know what’s going on inside their subject’s head (although it helps when the subject has written a memoir!), and I think inevitably there’s a certain amount of ‘intelligent imagining’ that goes on. It makes me raise my eyebrows, though. With that qualification, I found this to be a marvelous book, a perfect selection for the Art History Challenge, and I’m so happy to know more about my favourite artist.

APaleViewofHillsAfter my difficulties with fiction this week, I decided to turn to one of my favourite authors-Kazuo Ishiguro. I chose A Pale View of Hills, his first published novel, for the Japanese Lit III Challenge, since it’s actually set in Japan. This is a very slim novel, at slightly less than two hundred pages, and I read it in two sittings, hesitant to put it down. While I can see why some people might not enjoy it, I loved it to bits and pieces. An older Japanese woman, now living in England, reminisces about her life in post-WWII Japan near Nagasaki, where for awhile she knew a strange neighbour woman. It’s really impossible for me to go into more detail than that, but suffice it to say that the subtlety, the delicate touch, the willingness to trust the reader that makes Ishiguro one of my favourites is all alive and well here. Ishiguro is also marvelously adept at creating an atmosphere, and the whole book was creepy and slightly off-kilter is a way that was simply delicious. It doesn’t have at all a traditional resolution, but I think the ending was perfect for the book. I don’t think I’d recommend readers who are new to Ishiguro to start here (I’d say go with Remains of the Day), but for those who love Ishiguro’s style, I think you’ll really enjoy this one!

AcrosstheWire Finally, I read Luis Alberto Urrea’s Across the Wire, a nonfiction account of life among the poorest of the poor in Tijuana, Mexico (a border town near San Diego for those who don’t know). I loved Urrea’s novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter, which I read earlier this year, so when I was looking for a World Citizen read, I naturally turned to his nonfiction. He has a later book about Mexicans who illegally cross the border, but I decided to go with this one first as the foundation. This definitely feels like a young man’s book, if you understand me. When Urrea lived in San Diego, he became involved with a Baptist ministry who would go across the border and try to the help the impoverished people who live in Tijuana’s garbage dumps. He saw a lot of horrible things, and the rage and frustration that provoked comes through very strongly on the page. He really brings alive the immediate horrors of living in extreme poverty, and for that I was grateful (although also frequently sobbing). That being said, there is one long chapter in the book (which is pretty short) that deals with the mysterious death of his father (who’s from Tijuana). While it does show the corruption of the police, I didn’t think it fit in with the rest of the book’s subject matter, and the book would have been stronger without it. Still, a book I’d recommend.

Finally, I reread Pride and Prejudice, this time in annotated form. But I’m devoting a whole post to it. :) And just last night I finished I’m Looking Through You, a memoir by Jennifer Finney Boylan, but I need more time to process it before writing about it.

So that wraps up my reading for this week! It hasn’t been back-to-back books I loved and adored like last week, but as always I enjoyed myself. I also began reading out of a short story anthology (Poe’s Children) and an essay anthology (The Art of the Personal Essay), so I’ve got lots on my plate to keep me busy!

33 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2009 10:34 am

    Yay! I’ve been manically looking for a post from you all morning. Addicted, much? Yeah, I suppose I am. You always have such great books to discuss (even if the reviews aren’t all positive…which I appreciate).

    I was trying my best to remember the title I’m Looking Through You when I was at the library a couple of days ago, and for the life of me I couldn’t remember. I got the “through” part! lol Need to go back and add it to my wishlist.

    Unbelievable sounds really interesting, but since you mentioned Will Storr, I think I’ll try that one first. It’s been on my radar for ages now.

  2. September 13, 2009 10:43 am

    I have to admit, despite it winning, I’m not actually interested in My Most Excellent Year. The descriptions of it have never made me think they were something I’d like.

  3. September 13, 2009 10:47 am

    Also, you won a book. Yay!

    Can you please email me your address?

  4. September 13, 2009 11:28 am

    I loved Fledgling, too.

    Without fail, I feel full after visiting here, Eva. I’d be jealous except because you are such a voracious reader and prolific blogger I get to enjoy so many reads vicariously through you, so I thank you, thank you, thank you.

  5. September 13, 2009 11:44 am

    I’m sad you didn’t like the Tsukiyama! I hope I don’t dislike the book of hers that I have. Needless to say, it just dropped down the TBR pile quite a bit.

    Your issues with the diplomat situation in My Most Excellent Year are interesting. I always worry when reading that sometimes I’m getting misinformation but I’m not knowledgeable enough about it to realize. At the same time, knowing too much can ruin books who are wonderful besides that. It’s difficult.

  6. September 13, 2009 11:59 am

    Yay for electricity. We were without power and water for several days after a bad ice storm and it was just awful. We do take a lot for granted, don’t we?

  7. September 13, 2009 12:23 pm

    I can’t imagine how I would cope without electricity, though I would probably read more. I wish I could read as many books as you do in a week. I am envious. I can normally read 2 o 3, then family life butts in and takes over my time.

    I can’t wait to hear about Fledgling. I liked the look of that one when you got it out of the library.

  8. September 13, 2009 12:33 pm

    I definitely get why MY MOST EXCELLENT YEAR didn’t work for you. That happens to me so often. I can see why I should like a book, but I just can’t connect with the characters and that kills it for me.

  9. September 13, 2009 12:41 pm

    Good to read your thoughts about books you read. I appreciate the honesty. It’s hard to post thoughts on books you did not like.

  10. September 13, 2009 1:00 pm

    I have given you an award!

    Happy Sunday!

  11. September 13, 2009 1:14 pm

    Sorry that My Most Excellent Year didn’t work for you. :( I still plan to read it, but now that I know about all that diplomacy stuff you mentioned I’ll probably have in in the back of MY head the whole time too! Oh well – we’ll have to see what I think when I get a chance to read it.

  12. September 13, 2009 2:00 pm

    I’ve also given you an award! I’ll be posting it any minute.

  13. September 13, 2009 2:10 pm

    I have to agree with your opinion of Night of Many Dreams. It just fell flat for me. Whereas I really loved The Samurai’s Garden…

  14. September 13, 2009 2:13 pm

    Hurray for electricity! And glad you can post again…..Like you, I don’t read many biographies, and for much the same reason. I do like Marc Chagall very much, so I’ve been following what you’ve written the last little while and love your review of the book! It would be great to get a print of his, wouldn’t it? We can dream…..

    I also enjoyed what you said about the US ambassador/foreign service, because it’s much the same way up here – you are either an ambassador to another country – thus serving while the Minister wants you there – or if serving under an administration, gone when the PM moves on. Political appointments we call them up here. But also getting moved around alot. Nor do our CSIS agents protect the kids of ambassadors – either ours, or ambassadors of other countries to Canada. I used to want to be a diplomat too, until I realized that I inherited my family’s complete lack of tact and off-the-wall humour, definitely not pluses in diplomacy!

    What copy of P&P did you find that was annotated? Oh my, that sounds interesting!! I can hardly wait for your post!!!

  15. September 13, 2009 2:16 pm

    I have not read all Ishiguro’s ye, but a LOT ;) And I really think A Pale View of Hills is my favourite! I am so glad you liked it as well :))

  16. September 13, 2009 3:42 pm

    So glad you all have your electricity back! It’s amazing the incredible amount of things we take for granted, isn’t it?

    I think you read more books this week than I will all month! But then that’s really nothing new, is it? ;)

  17. September 13, 2009 4:19 pm

    I had the same problems with My Most Excellent Year as you, but I think they just didn’t bug me as much as you…overall, I did really like the book, but I still found the characters to be way too superficial and while I liked them, I never really cared for them. I wasn’t invested in them Except for Hucky…I loved Hucky :) As for the ambassador issue, I’m with you there…I was totally confused by that throughout the entire novel!

    The Ishiguro book sounds really cool!! I’m adding that one straight onto my wishlist. I’ve been wanting to try more of his stuff!

  18. September 14, 2009 2:15 am

    I loved A Pale View of Hills, too! And I haven’t read that book by Tsukiyama but the one I did (The Samurai’s Garden) felt the same to me as you described. Although I didn’t think it was awful. It was just so less than I expected. I liked the serenity of the writing but the characters felt contrived and unreal. I didn’t loathe it but I didn’t love it either. It was just okay.

    Oh and Chagall.. he’s not my fave but love him too!

  19. September 14, 2009 3:02 am

    Blackouts are terrible; they just throw everything out of gear. I haven’t read too many biographies; this sounds really good.

  20. September 14, 2009 5:42 am

    I love biographies so the Chagall interests me. It’s too bad the color plates weren’t well labeled in the text: that would be very frustrating to me!

  21. September 14, 2009 10:59 am

    Another hurray for electricity–last time this year we were out for 9 days when Hurricane Ike’s winds came through (I missed BBAW entirely). And now I feel I must read My Most Excellent Year, despite what sounds like bad research on the part of the author. I’m just perverse that way sometimes.

  22. September 14, 2009 12:40 pm

    We do take electricity for granted, don’t we?
    I have A Pale View of Hills in the stacks but haven’t read it yet. One of these days..
    I read The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama and enjoyed it at the time, but it was so long ago, I wonder if I’d feel the same about it now.

  23. September 14, 2009 9:32 pm

    You confirmed my suspicion for Tsukiyama. I read one of her book and I was dissapointed of it (Dreaming Water). I think two off-books could mean all off (for us anyway), so I’ll stay away from her, but I’m interested to hear your thoughts if you read another one. On the other hand, I love Ishiguro, and I have A Pale View of Hills on my shelf. Hope to read that soon!

  24. September 15, 2009 2:34 am

    I really feel the need to say something positive about Tsukiyama! I loved The Samurai’s Garden and also found Women of the Silk a good read! I have heard more people complaining about Dreaming Water (it’s going down on my Mt. TBR as well ;) and I do believe she has written some strong and some less works.

    Don’t let one of the ‘baddies’ put you completely off! (And I am saying this to Mee as well ;) Try her early work.

  25. September 15, 2009 8:43 am

    That’s too bad about the Gail Tsukiyama book. This is an author I’ve long been meaning to read myself.

  26. September 16, 2009 1:37 pm

    Totally in agreement with you about the superficiality of the characters in My Most Excellent Year. I was desperate for something to go wrong that would matter to me. It was actually creepy to me, in a Stepford Wives-ish kind of way.

  27. September 16, 2009 8:25 pm

    We have really hinky electricity, around here. Sometimes a snake or a squirrel will get into a transformer box and we’ll hear a boom noise. At that point, we usually watch the lights go out and say, “Fried squirrel, anyone?” It’s a nuisance, but sometimes at least it’s funny.

    I’m one of those people who hated A PALE VIEW OF HILLS. It does have a great atmosphere, but there were symbolic bits that I just hated. THE REMAINS OF THE DAY is one of my favorite books, though.

  28. September 17, 2009 9:10 am

    This is kind of a side note–but I wanted to say congrats on your NF win. You had my vote, so I’m thrilled. :)

  29. September 17, 2009 10:18 am

    I had to laugh at your review of the Kluger book. My best friend loves one of his books (I don’t think it’s this one, not sure though) and much to her chagrin I’ve never read it, because it doesn’t interest me at all. But what made me laugh was all the things that kept bothering you. Don’t you hate it when the little nagging things keep pulling you out of the enjoyment of a book?

    As for Tsukiyama, I read one of her books a few years ago for a book club, and was so unimpressed that I’ve never had any interest in reading anything further by her.

    I’m glad you had some good reads, though!

  30. September 17, 2009 4:00 pm

    Andi, that’s like the nicest comment ever!!! And lol @ your frustration w/ I’m Looking Through You-I have that problem sometimes too! Will Storr is very different from Unbelievable-memoir vs. journalistic nf. But I LOVED Will Storr and so did my mom! :)

    Amanda, you definitely have to suspend all disbelief.

    Softdrink, so exciting!

    Susan, thanks so much!

    Meghan, it is difficult. I tried to suspend my knowledge but failed.

    BermudaOnion, we do take a lot for granted!

    Vivienne, the lights came back before then sun went down, so thank God for small miracles!

    Memory, I’m glad you understand!

    DebNance, it is hard-thanks for the comment.

    Mari, thanks!

    Heather, ohhh-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to put the diplomacy stuff in everyone else’s head too!!!

    Jeane, I’m glad I’m not the only one! Since you loved The Samurai’s Garden, maybe I’ll try that one too. :)

    Susan, that’s so interesting about the Canadian FS too! And the annotated P&P was published last year I think-I’ve linked to it on my ‘books read’ page.

    Gnoegnoe, I’m happy to meet another Isihguro fan!

    Debi, :p

    Chris, Hucky felt a bit more real to me, although he was still quite precocious for a 6 year old! I hope you enjoy the Isihguro. :0

    Claire, it seems like the type of book you loved! And I’m glad I’m not the only one who has problems with Tsukiyama. Who’s your favourite artist?

    Hazra, I really enjoyed it!

    Rebecca, yeah-for a long time I thought they were chronological and that certain plates just weren’t in there, but then I realised my mistake. It was very haphazard-there are like four ‘sections’ of the coloured plates.

    Jeane, I can’t iamgine 9 days!!! 10 hours was more than enough. And most people really enjoyed My Most Excellent Year, so I don’t think you’re perverse at all. :)

    Tanabata, I wonder that too, about some books I loved a long time ago, and if they would still seem as wonderful to me today!

    Mee, glad I’m not the only one!

    Gnoegoe, thanks for stearing me to her earlier works. :) I promise I’ll give her a second try one of these days!

    Tara, it seems some of her other books are better! So just try a different one. :)

    Ali, I’m SO GLAD I’m not the only one!!!

    Nancy, our college campus was like that too!! :) I’m glad you loved The Remains of the Day-I think I just ignore symbolism when I read books, lol.

    Trish, thanks so much!!! That’s very sweet of you. :D

    Lesley, I do hate it! I wanted to share it so others would know how nitpicking it was, lol.


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