Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Soloist

I received a copy of this book a couple of weeks ago at professional day on campus. It was announced that The Soloist would be next year's "One Book" and they wanted the faculty and staff to have copies so they can read it over the summer if they choose.

At the time I received the book I had no clue that it had already been made into a movie, and starring one of my favorite actors (Robert Downey Jr.), but the buzz seemed interested so I shelved it until I finished the book I was already reading.

After reading the very first "One Book" selection a few years ago, a biographical account of growing up in South Boston called "All Souls", which totally sucked, I've been hesitant to read and of the selections since but I am certainly glad that I took the shot with this one.

The book chronicles a period of approximately two years in which Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez came to know a man named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers; a homeless man with a story and a gift - and an illness.

Ayers had been a student at the prestigious Julliard School in New York City thirty years prior and as a result of mental illness, Lopez finds him in spot on "skid row" playing a beat up violin. Whatever it was that sparked this chance meeting had sparked Lopez's interest to where he wanted to know more. At first, it was about writing a column but as time went on, a very special bond was formed and this book tells the story in long form.

There wasn't a moment of this story that didn't have my interest at its peak and there were a number of occasions where the emotional impact of the story was almost too much. This is a story that will stay with me for a very long time I am sure and I highly recommend this wonderful book.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Atlas of Unknowns

Atlas of Unkowns by Tania James

Atlas of Unknowns was actually nothing like I thought it would be. And that's a good thing. Set in Kerala, India, this beautiful written and incredibly involved story introduces us to two sisters Linno and Anju, and their unknown past and future. When Linno was 7, and Anju just a baby, their mother Gracie died in the ocean. Being raised by their father Melvin, they faced another tragedy when Linno burns her hand badly with a firecracker. Trying to surpass their sad history, Anju, the brilliant one, applies for a scholarship that will take her to New York City, where she will study for 10 months. Lucky for her, she receives the scholarship, yet only by staging a lie - one that reveals itself a few months into her stay in the city.

The story continues to revolve around the girls and how they will one day be reunited again. As Anju tries to get a green card and works in a beauty salon, Linno earns money to get her Visa by creating handmade invitations. Juxtaposed by the story of their mother's past, everything comes together at the end when two separate tales are joined.

I really enjoyed Atlas of Unkowns. The book was incredibly engrossing - jumping from story to story, it was a nonstop page turner. As James's first novel, she weaves a beautiful, yet heartbreaking tale of two sisters and how much they'll risk to set things right. James' descriptions of rural India are so vivid that you could see the multi-colored saris and taste the spicy foods. What she portrays most interestingly, however, is Anju's time in the city. An outsider trying to fit in, Anju learns how to push her way into the subway, talk to people in department stores and make friends with classmates. I also loved the descriptions of Linno's innvitations. Seeing her create an object out of nothing was especially inspiring.

The story is deep, with many layers detailed different generations of the family. Each substory is important, each relates back to the present. Each section is told by a different main character, which is especially important. With that, you learn each side of a story, every part of a never forgotten tale. Additionally, every character is given an incredible amount of detail-enough that you feel as if you know them. Of those Bird is the most important, with her motherly protective ways towards Anju.

My main problem with the book is that it doesn't wrap up in the end. Yes, things are resolved, however so much more is left out. Characters are dropped and plot lines are avoided. Although none of them are as essential as the main story, I would have liked to see what happened afterward. I suppose this book isn't a story though - it's about a life. A life can't be wrapped up after 300 pages; it keeps going.

Regardless, Atlas of Unknowns truly is a beautiful book that I recommend to anyone who has an interest in Indian lifestyles, cultural studies or coming of age tales. I look forward to whatever else Tania James writes.

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

I'm a little behind on reading (and reviewing) this amazing book, as it was released in 2005 by Curtis Sittenfeld and was a very successful first book for this amazing author. I started reading it when it first came out and for reasons that are unknown to me today, I did not finish it. However, after reading American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld's third and newest novel I knew I had to pick Prep back up again.
Boy, oh boy am I glad I did! Prep's main character is teenager Lee Fiora from South Bend, Indiana who decides to apply to the prestigious boarding school, Ault in Massachusetts after seeing a glossy brochure featuring old brick buildings, pristine lawns and preppy coeds. Lee is accepted into the school and offered a scholarship, so her parents allow her to go for the great opportunity. Lee quickly learns that the East Coast is definitely very different from the Midwest.
Lee is a quiet girl that doesn't draw attention to herself, she's not considered popular but she's not considered nerdy either. In my opinion she's the girl that is everyone's friend, but maintains an aura of mystery around her at all times. She is extremely observant of her classmates and even of students in the classes above her. She studies the yearbooks and knows everyone's names as well as their bios.
It's hard not to relate to Lee (even if you were the most popular girl in school - which, lets face it, most people weren't) she's unsure of herself and questions everything. All she wants is to be normal, but at Ault she anything but normal. Her classmates are made up of almost entirely East coast kids that come from wealthy families. Lee is from a lower middle class family in Indiana. Her classmates send out their laundry to be cleaned for a "small" fee of $3000 per year, Lee does her laundry herself. Her classmates don't think about tuition or how to pay for it, while Lee is there on a scholarship.
My favorite part of the book is during her junior (or sophomore year, not quite sure) she does a favor for the most popular girl in school. By chance the most popular boy in school (and coincidently Lee's crush) is there as well. During the little amount of time she spends with these two students, who are regarded as the same level as celebrities, Lee realizes that they are just as weird as she is. Essentially, realizing they are no different from one another.
The problems Lee faces during her four years at boarding school are not unlike any problems that a typical high school student faces. It's hard to be confident at this time in your life when you're not sure who you are.

I definitely suggest reading this book if you went to a public or private high school, everyone will find a reason to identify with Lee whether popular in high school or not. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Beach House

I've talked about enough James Patterson books on this blog to not have to go to much into detail here.

If you like thriller/murder-mystery type books and you would like to have something that you can bang out quickly (I started it on a Saturday afternoon and finished it on a Sunday afternoon), this is a good selection.

It would almost seem impossible, at least to the untrained author such as myself, to develop characters as deeply as he does because these stories just fly by but for me to invest such a short time and be so deeply involved in these fictional lives is very gratifying.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain

"The Poet Laureate of Skid Row", Charles Bukowski usually falls into one of three categories with people: Love him, hate him, and who the fuck is Charles Bukowski. If you fall into the third category, do me (and yourself) a favor, read this book and then pick one of the first two.

Released a decade or so after his death, this collection of poems, many of which were written near the end of his life, truly defines the author in the context of his own life. I became a fan in the late 80's after seeing Barfly with an ex-girlfriend and then reading a few compilations of his poetry.

Of all the poems that were great in this collections, and there were many, I chose to include one here that I thought might best exemplify my words thus far. The essence of this poem defines Bukowski for me and is the reason why I think he is so amazing at what he does.

feeling fairly good tonight

Thou shalt not fail as a writer
because the vultures are waiting in the wings ready
to swoop down and sign their
“I told you so’s.”

Thou shalt not fail as a writer
because the very act of writing is the best protection
from the madness of the

Thou shalt not fail as a writer
because it 's the finest form of self-entertainment

but Thou shall be finished as a writer
upon the hour or day of your

only to have thick new books of yours
appear for years afterwards compiled
from the stockpile of poems you
left behind for your

let it be so:
these wisps of magic
wrested from the clutch