Thursday, May 25, 2006

50BC06 #9: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is one of the purest expressions of narrative beauty in contemporary fiction. Told through the writings of one narrator, the story weaves in and out of four generations with seamless grace, exploring the inevitable ties that bind: family, friends, faith and love.

As Congregationalist minister John Ames prepares for death, he paints a vivid picture of America’s history from the Civil War to segregation. At the center of his writings to his son, is a lesson about how much we stand to gain from the introspection most of us fail to engage in until it is too late. His poignant reflections resonate with a timelessness, yet never sacrifice the flow of the narrative.

This is a book to be read slowly, a little at a time. Every anecdote and vignette is a life lesson in miniature, but the book never resorts to pontification or blithe nostalgia. It unites believers and non-believers, old and young, men and women in an exquisite tapestry of the human condition.

Posted 9/12/08, originally posted 5/25/06.

Sunday, April 9, 2006

50BC06 #8: The Piano Shop on the Left Bank

50 Book Challenge #8
The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in A Paris Atelier
by Thad Carhart
268 pp

Although classified as a non-fiction memoir, Carhart’s brilliant work reads like a novel in its vivid character descriptions and joyous reverence for music. The author pulls us into his Parisian existence, in the center of which lies Desforges Pianos, a small, but magical atelier which houses passions for history and music. We follow Carhart on a hero’s journey, all the while learning immense amounts about the making and history of pianos.

The key figures in the book are characters but not caricatures. Carhart views his life in Paris as an adventure, and the reader is held in joyful anticipation of the next discovery in chapter after chapter. Rather than the Louvre, the Champs Elysées, and Le Tour Eiffel, Carhart’s Paris is a human community brought together by a love of music.

Full of technical details and historical interludes, Carhart’s memoir is informed, but not burdened by its own knowledge. The author’s writing style is fluid and whimsical, touched with a dry humor that keeps his lofty homage to music at a very urbane level. Even those who have never been to Paris or have no connection with music whatsoever will enjoy this book as it is really a story about the childhood passions we so easily forget at adults.

Posted here 9/12/08, originally posted 4/9/06.

Thursday, March 2, 2006

50BC06 #6: Holidays on Ice

50 Book Challenge #6
BOOK REVIEW: Holidays on Ice
Author: David Sedaris

If you are looking for the literary equivalent of “It’s a Wonderful Life”—this book is definitely NOT for you. However, if you appreciate slightly cynical and sardonic commentary on the holidays, you will most likely appreciate this set of short stories by David Sedaris. From Jim Timothy, the extortionist who preys upon a Pentecostal church, to Dinah, the “Christmas Whore,” Sedaris packs his vignettes with unforgettable characters who will make you laugh—even though you know Clarence the Angel would disapprove. If you’ve had enough of family bickering and other such holiday treats, curl up with this offering and you’ll find a kindred spirit in David Sedaris.

Posted here on 9/12/08, original post 3/2/06.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

50BC06 #5: In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

50 Book Challenge #5
BOOK REVIEW: In the Company of Cheerful Ladies
Author: Alexander McCall Smith

In Book 6 of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the author allows his characters to really come into their own. The addition of a new member to the crew at Tlokweng Speedy Motors/No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is of great benefit to the narrative. The book starts off with a mystery and has a bit more of a “Murder She Wrote” type feel to it than the other books in the series. The return of a figure from Mma Ramotswe’s past brings about a deeper sense of introspection from her character. Fans of Mma Makutsi will be happy to know that her storyline finally develops.
This is definitely the best of the six novels and Smith seems to grow more and more as a writer with each novel in the series.

Posted here 9/8/08, originally posted 2/23/06.

Monday, February 6, 2006

50BC06 #4: Plainsong

50 Book Challenge #4
BOOK REVIEW: Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Mr. Haruf is an extraordinary storyteller as he interweaves the threads of the average into a plain, yet beautiful reality. Plainsong is quintessential Americana without the sense of false rhetoric that encumbers so many novels in this genre. The novel’s multiple protagonists are painfully honest characters who embody life truths and complexities without melodrama. The interaction of the novels characters testify to a greater sense of connectedness with those around us, no matter where we may live. Haruf lays bare many graphic details without sensationalism in order to produce one of modern fiction’s most sincere depictions of everyday life.

Readers who enjoyed Richard Russo’s Empire Falls will likely enjoy this novel about community and everyday heroism.

Posted here 9/8/08, originally posted 2/6/06.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

50BC06#3: The Full Cupboard of Life

BOOK REVIEW: Alexander McCall Smith The Full Cupboard of Life (No. 5 in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series)
50 Book Challenge #3

One of the best parts of Alexander McCall Smith’s series is that each book improves in terms of character definition and advancing the plot. Book 5 integrates Precious Ramotswe with the other characters in a more realistic and intriguing way. The author hints at the distinctions we must draw between manipulation and persuasion (in the character of Mma Potokwane), fear and caution (with Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s never-ending engagement to Mma Ramotswe), and speaking one’s mind and biting one’s tongue (aptly expressed in the character of Mma Makutsi.)
Fans of the series who may by this time be frustrated with a lack of resolution to certain issues, will be slightly pacified in this book. McCall Smith highlights some of the more minor, yet regular, characters, filing out the world of Mma Ramotswe’s Botswana. This book manages to be endearing without the sense of condescension that some complain about with the first book. By Book 3, the author seems to have pulled up his proverbial chair and can now dialogue comfortably with his characters. The Full Cupboard of Life continues this trend and promises to bring the story to an enriching and delightful end in the final two books of the series.

Posted here on 9/8/08, original post from 1/29/06

Sunday, January 15, 2006

50BC06 #2: Highbrow, Lowbrow

Review of Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America by Lawrence W. Levine. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.)

Academia often will mark anything dated ten to fifteen years prior to the present as “dated” simply by the mere fact that its conception took place more than a decade ago. Levine’s 1988 tome testifies that this attitude is shortsighted and moreover, erroneous. Levine has written a book that serves both as a history lesson as well as a hopeful plea to reconsider our cultural biases as constructs of our own doing. Levine does not simplify the situation by presenting a black and white portrait of the American development of high vs. low culture. Instead he offers a well-researched argument supporting a flux in cultural ideas wherein we travel through various redefinitions of culture, both high and low.

Investigating the societal milieu surrounding Shakespeare, opera and orchestral music in nineteenth-century America, Levine aptly demonstrates how we arrived at our current struggle to accommodate contrasting ideas about culture. Bravely decrying the rhetoric of extremists on both sides of the debate, Levine warns:
“In defining and redefining the contours of culture, we are not merely dealing with intellectual abstractions; we are dealing with lives and minds, we are dealing with people, and we owe them more than the hubris of narrow self-defense; we owe them no less than the adoption of an open search for and a careful understanding of what culture has been in our past and can become in our future.”

One need not be an expert in the arts to appreciate the severity of Levine’s message. The comprehension of “cultural hierarchy” is absolutely fundamental to understanding our societal existence. One can moreover applaud Levine for tackling the subject in a way that is accessible and easily comprehended by those not ensconced in academic dialogue. His writing is bold and charismatic, making this book a refreshing change from many academic missives which aim to keep the discourse within the walls of the ivory tower. Levine invites us outside those walls by presenting us with an uncracked mirror by which we can clearly see our own responsibilities and reactions to culture in America.

Actually posted here 9/8/08, original post 1/15/06.

Sunday, January 8, 2006

50BC06 #1: When the Emperor Was Divine

Book #1:
Julie Otsuka

To take shame and mold it into an artful looking glass takes a talent not shared by many writers. Julie Otsuka’s novel is a heartbreaking account of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, related without the heavy-handedness that usually accompanies tales of such dire circumstance.
Otsuka assumes intelligence and social conscience in her readers, so much so that she feels at liberty to be subtly irreverent, never once beating one over the head with angst. If disgust could be elegant, that is how I would best describe Otsuka’s approach.
But her elegance in her writing does not take away from the grit—the reality of suffering. This suffering is summed up in a final “Confession” of the book’s hidden protagonist—albeit too quickly. The end almost seems a bit trite given the journey through which the reader has traversed with the other characters.
Aside from the abrupt final cadence, Emperor tells a story that is as much a tale of Everyman as it is a fitting remembrance of one of the most shocking embarrassments of American history.
(Actually posted 9/8/08, transfered from original post 1/8/06)