Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Red Leather Diary by Lily Koppel

It's been a heck of a week--lots of activity that goes along with school and work recommencing. I haven't had as much time to read, and I've really missed it. Reading calms me down--gives me the rest equivalent of, perhaps, a 20 minute catnap. The books I did manage to pick up this week seemed watered down compared to the The Help. I couldn't seem to get into them; there was nothing magnetic about them, and when I'm tired, I need magnetism, sweetheart. When contemplating what book to feature today, I dredged up (from the pitted membrane behind my skull) The Red Leather Diary by Lily Koppel. A unique little memoir, Diary tells the story of NYC writer Koppel who dumpster dives outside her apartment building and finds an old diary belonging to a young resident from the 1920s. Koppel is intrigued by the teenager's musings--despite the passage of time, they seem closely aligned with her own views--and launches an search to find her. The diary's author, Florence Wolfson, now in her 90s, is alive and well and willing to talk. The book wonderfully juxtaposes the past and the present. Some things were different back then, and some weren't at all. The Red Leather Diary seamlessly blends history and feminism and, of course, the best setting in the world (imho), New York City. FYI, some of my friends did not like this book, but, as you know, books are extremely personal choices. Just like husbands or wives or mattresses.

P.S. Does shopping for a mattress sound like fun? Well, it's not.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Another book I keep pondering, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a rare treat--a great story perfectly balanced with allegory. Madame Renee Michel is the brilliant middle-aged concierge in a tony Paris apartment building. She takes great pleasure in making herself appear to be a dull landlady. Madame Michel likes to think she's duping the rich tenants who march proudly past her quarters every day. They don't know that she is an amateur philosopher, an accomplished autodidact with profound thoughts about life and love. Two tenants, the sad twelve year old Paloma and the aesthete Monsieur Kakuro Ozu, manage to see through Madame Michel's charade to her sparkling intellect. Friendships form among the three, and Renee Michel's philosophies of life and love take a beautiful turn. Hedgehog's story of life in a French apartment building can stand on its own: with a light touch, the author shows how the upper and lower classes, colorful characters in both, interact in modern day Paris. The story is entertaining simply for its cultural details (the nosy rich, a refined cleaning lady, delectable tea times). On a broader level, however, The Elegance of the Hedgehog stands firmly as allegory: meaninglessness versus meaning, timelessness versus time, and most important, alienation versus community. This book will make you think about the big picture, and, if you follow its lead, you'll aim squarely for an eternal world of camellia and moss. Meaningfulness, timelessness, and community--these are the important things in life.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Well, I just finished The Help, and I can't get it out of my mind. Reading this book was a very cinematic experience for me. I could easily picture the movie that the book will one day surely become. Narrated by several characters, each wholly developed and totally believable, the story just sings with verisimilitude. It is 1962, and Skeeter Phelan has graduated from college and come home to Jackson, Mississippi, to figure out the rest of her life. She doesn't have much in common with her two best friends, Hilly and Elizabeth, anymore. Both are married mothers immersed in Junior League and household management, the latter of which requires the ubiquitous "help" of that era. The housekeepers are African American maids who are simply doing the best they can, struggling to earn a living so they can make a better life for their children. These women endure plenty, from the minor (being banned from their employers' toilets) to the major (living in a world of hate crimes). Skeeter, a budding writer, is compelled to tell the maids' stories in a book, a potentially dangerous act in that era. What she learns from the help, which includes the nurturing Aibileen and the sharp-tongued Minny, is both baffling and beautiful and ends up considerably blurring color lines. The Help resurrects the South of the early 60s in all its ugliness and beauty. Stockett's words leave indelible images in the mind which had this reader thanking history, yet again, for the Civil Rights Movement.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

I'm glad my book club selected this book a few years back or I would never have read it. The subject matter--Afghanistan, war, rape--turned me way off. But the book is really more about childhood, friendship, American immigrants, and forgiveness than those other things. Honestly! In spite of the war-torn, brutal setting, the book glows with positivity and hope. Amir, a well-to-do child in Kabul, is best friends with the lower class Hassan. They both enjoy participating in kite races, an unfamiliar pastime to me, but apparently popular in that part of the world. The beauty and grace of kite flying strongly contrasts with the brutality and bullying going on all around the boys. Unfortunately, Hassan falls victim to a brutal attack, and Amir ends their friendship, a move that deeply haunts him into adulthood. Quite a bit of the novel discusses Amir's life in America--how his family adjusts, how he decides to become a writer. America is the country in which Amir matures and grows ready to face his past in Afghanistan. He does return to his homeland to face his demons, and he wins, in every way. The Kite Runner is a novel about triumphing over the evil that lives within and without.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Numbering roughly 200 pages, On Chesil Beach is an arresting novella about a wedding night gone wrong. McEwan (Atonement) succinctly paints the personalities, courtship, and nuptials of Edward and Florence, two virgins honeymooning on Chesil Beach in 1962. The reader is privy to their most intimate encounter, an inept confluence which miscarries in the worst of ways--divorce. Yet, McEwan, delicately mixing in time and reflection, intentionally causes us to wonder if this tragedy need have happened at all. Edward, older and wiser, reflects that the wedding night, with a little more love and patience on his part, might not have been a disaster. He and Florence were well-matched in many ways; why should sex have destroyed everything? The reader can't help but wonder if premarital sex could have saved the marriage. But, perhaps, Florence's extreme reluctance would simply have squelched the courtship at an earlier juncture. On Chesil Beach raises good questions about intimacy, physical and emotional, and the power of regret.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I had to include this book, Harper Lee's one and only. Narrated by young Scout, a girl growing up in small-town Alabama in the 1930s, the story wends it way through a plot chock-full of childhood play, family, growing pains, and, most important, the troubles racial tension causes. I read To Kill a Mockingbird in 9th grade and liked it. I read it in my thirties and loved it. The definitive coming of age novel, the story shows Scout maturing from child to young adult during a period of three years: she learns that some people can be dangerous, and others (often the most unlikely ones) can literally save your life. Some time after rereading this book, I also read Charles Shields' Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, garnering a few literary tidbits. Lee, still alive and living in Alabama, has never published another novel; in fact, in the decade or so following Mockingbird, a major magazine rejected some essays she submitted, calling them subpar. Talk about humiliation! Also, I seem to remember that Shields supported the theory that Lee's good friend Truman Capote had helped her write Mockingbird, but don't quote me on this. In any case, none of this drama is important because the book remains one of the best in American literature; children and adults both find value in it. It's one of those that won't waste your time, so you can read it every decade.

Monday, August 3, 2009

So B. It by Sarah Weeks

It seems to me that many of the young adult novels written today are mediocre. I sometimes think it's because my adult mind has lost its ability to relate to anything youthful, but then I read a book like So B. It by Sarah Weeks, and I realize that maybe it's not me after all--it's them. (Sorry, Traveling Pants !) A coming of age story, So B. It concerns twelve year old Heidi's search for the truth about her mother, a loving mentally challenged woman, and her mysterious past. Her mother has no other discernable family, an unusual name (So B. It), and lives with Heidi and a kind agoraphobic neighbor, Bernadette, in adjoining apartments in Reno. Certain things intrigue Heidi, leading her to search for her mother's identity. Who are the people in the old pictures she's found? Who pays for the rent on their apartment? Weeks excels in plain, old-fashioned story telling: the characters seem real, not petty and paper-thin, and the places they travel are the well paved, mortar and bricks sort. The So B. It character fascinated me--her disability should limit her, but it really doesn't at all. She lives, and she's loved. Maybe the real message of this book is that family is important, and it comes in many kinds of weird configurations. Maturity is at the heart of So B. It--wisdom without preachiness. I wish there were more YA books like it.