October 31, 2009

October Reads

Another month flies by and another stack of books are devoured. Here are the four books I’ve read this October:

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. I think I can safely ascribe my ever picking up this book to an all-too-common case of book-hype. I’ve seen the novel on a slew of "best books of the year" lists, it’s been compared to The Great Gatsby, and even President Obama himself had read and praised it, so I figured I should see what all the fuss is about. Evidently, not much. The book takes place in post 9/11 New York and is told from the point of view of a wealthy Dutch financial analyst who, currently estranged from his wife and little boy, wanders about Manhattan like a ghost, haunting the city spots that remind him of happier days in his marriage. He strikes up a friendship with a savvy businessman named Chuck with whom he bonds over a shared love of cricket. And that’s it, really; there isn't a whole lot of action in the story. Although the author writes eloquently and thoughtfully on relationships and even includes a bit of historical geographical trivia, I can't say that his writing really drew me in or succeeded in making me care about the characters. I found myself growing bored whenever he drifted into childhood recollections or waxed lyrical about the beauty of cricket. Which is to say I was bored quite often. What most held my interest were the paragraphs devoted to his relationship with his wife and the dissolution and eventual reconciliation of their marriage, but even that was a little depressing. After finishing it, I came across several comments on GoodReads which suggest that you have to be a New Yorker to truly appreciate the book. Although I don’t necessarily agree with that statement (I’ve been to the city several times, so am somewhat attuned to its neighborhoods and cultural insights), being from New York probably wouldn’t hurt, either. This non-New Yorker isn’t a fan.

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro’s latest is a compilation of five short stories threaded together by the ever-cohesive theme of music. “Come Rain or Come Shine”, is, to me, the true standout of the bunch. Unhappy and aimless Raymond is invited to the home of a married couple with whom he has been friends for many years. It’s not until he has arrived that he discovers that the couple’s relationship is in trouble and the husband has invited him over for the sole purpose of helping him fix his marriage. As it happens, Raymond later learns that the role he is to play in reconciling his long-time friends is insulting at best, and the antics that ensue are cringe-inducing and absolutely hilarious. I think it might just be one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. This book starts off with a killer (pun actually not intended!) opening line: "There was a knife in the darkness, and it held a knife." Pretty creepy stuff for children, no? It’s much creepier than I would have come to expect from a young adult fiction author. Echoing Kipling's The Jungle Book, The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody Owens who flees the clutches of the man Jack who has just killed his entire family (and we don’t know why, not until the very end) one soft October night. The small toddler wanders into a graveyard and is taken in by the shadowy ghosts who inhabit the place. Years pass and the boy is accepted into the ghostly community as their very own, and eventually little Bod (short for Nobody) learns such supernatural tricks as Fading, Dreamwalking, Seeing as the dead see, and even engendering Fear, and thus embarks on a host of adventures with ghosts, ghouls, and even a vampire and werewolf. I recommend giving the audiobook version a whirl; the author himself narrates and supplies the necessary voices and pauses you would expect to find, and is highly entertaining. Interestingly enough, Gaiman mentions fellow Gothic lover and other author I’ve read this month, Audrey Niffenegger, on the acknowledgments page. Turns out these two authors and their respective books have something in common…

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. Niffenegger’s latest book is an ode to the Gothic English tradition. Twins Julia and Valentina move to London in the dead of winter after inheriting their deceased aunt’s London flat which borders the famous Highgate cemetery. The girls encounter the odd inhabitants of their apartment building and one, in particular, whose spectral presence is made known to the twins over the course of the novel. I found the choices some of the characters made foolhardy and stupid, yet was eager to read more and learn how their plans fared, however much I disapproved of them. Her Fearful Symmetry (the title comes from a William Blake poem) raises a lot of questions about our perceptions of the afterlife and the price and value of personal happiness, and would make for a great book group discussion. Although I really enjoyed the book, I couldn’t help feeling sort of bereft and pensive after turning the final page; I suppose I'm still trying to piece together all the thoughts and questions swimming in my own head. Finally, this book helped set the perfect autumnal mood in the week leading up to Halloween, and at 400 pages, was a surprisingly quick read. P.S. I keep stumbling across reviews that compare this book to Niffenegger’s hugely beloved The Time Traveler’s Wife, and my advice to you is don't compare the two. Take each book for what it is and enjoy!

I think I'll finish out this spine-chilling month with even more spooky reads as a sort of tribute to this eve of all hallows: a little classic M.R. James (writer of some of some of best-loved 20th Century ghost stories) and my personal favorite, Washington Irving’s, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. It’s a Halloween tradition.

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