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Archive for May, 2007

I brought Anna Karenina with me on our flight to San Francisco last weekend, thinking that only being in a confined space with no other options would bring me to read more Tolstoy. Even though a course in nineteenth-century Russian literature had completely convinced me I liked none of it, I still felt obligated to read Anna Karenina at some point in my life, and I arbitrarily decided that this was the time.

And I am forced to admit that it is a much better book that I was expected. Dare I even say that it might be one of my favorites? Who ever would have thought a Russian, Tolstoy no less (one of the least-liked authors I read that semester), would have written a book that I have been reading with joy? Because that is exactly what I have been doing, despite even the slightly controversial Constance Garnett translation.

Tolstoy’s insights into marriage are like layers of tiny revelations to me. Having never been married, of course, I couldn’t really say whether he was right. And of course, things have changed pretty significantly since 1873. But I keep feeling, as I read on, that I’m being made privy to some kind of secret knowledge about marriage and love, and I am struck by how accurately and beautifully Tolstoy manages to describe the range of emotions people experience during moments like weddings and childbirths and, yes, the dissolution of a relationship. And yes, I do know the ending, because it’s pretty darn hard not to when a book is as discussed and loved as this. And yet, despite knowing what is going to happen, I still feel engaged enough to want to know why, to know how Tolstoy brings about this chain of events, and how he describes these characters’ reactions. I guess I finally have to concede that there is something worthwhile in these old, dead Russian mens’ stories.

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I’ve discovered a new toy which I’m sure I’ll spend way too much time on. I’ve always wanted to create a database of all my books, and now someone has taken all the work out of the thing for me. I love that it populates the LC data for you, and that you can also create your own tag-based cataloging system. I’m sure I’ll have to work out the details of my own particular system over time, but I’m having tons of fun in the meantime.

There are also nifty social networking tools, suggestions for future reading, and the ability to write review of your books.

You can enter the first 200 books for free, then you can either pay $10 annually or $25 for a lifetime membership to put as many books you want in there. Considering I own over 500 books at this young point in my life, I’ll have to pay up soon if I want a complete record of every book I own.

I’m a weird obsessive. This is why I’m going to library school, people.

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I got The Buddha of Suburbia a few years ago, when I was taking a class in British Fiction at U Mass, but we didn’t actually get far enough in the syllabus to read it. I tried to read it a few months ago, but couldn’t get past the opening page. This week, while I was deep in the throes of book indecision, it caught my eye and I decided to give it another shot. Good thing for book indecision because it was surprisingly good.

This is one of those books whose back cover copy is not really an accurate description of the plot. What the marketing copy makes out to be the whole story actually takes place in the first ten pages, and the rest of the story unfolds from there. The novel follows a young boy, Karim, from the end of high school through adulthood, as he navigates family, sex, friendship, and politics in 1970s London. At the start of the book, Karim’s father, an Indian immigrant, becomes a kind of improvised guru to the needy suburban middle-aged, falls in love with a hippy, and leaves his wife. This family upset becomes the background against which Karim moves as he tries to figure out who he is and who the people are around him.

Full of bitterly funny skewerings of the art world, and the bourgeois explorations of sexuality and vice that seemingly prevailed in the 70s, Kureishi’s novel captures something a lot of other books don’t: believable and moving character development. This novel unfolds the coming of age process in the subtle, slowly-eye-opening way that people actually experience it. Karim’s relationships with the people around him, especially his own parents, change in the same slow and irreversible way they do for most people, before he even realizes it. It’s impressive, this accuracy and insight.

I suspect we were going to read this novel in my British Fiction class specifically to look at the role of Indian immigrants in postcolonial London, and being that that is my main area of study, of course I paid attention to that in my personal reading, as well. What I liked about this aspect of the novel is that no one was beating you over the head with the “this is a novel about race” cudgel. Rather, it was incorporated throughout deftly, like a string woven through the whole thing, visible only occasionally, but you know that string somehow ties the whole thing together.

The only thing that prevents me from loving this book to death is that in some areas the narrative felt too jumpy, too unsettling. You don’t yet know the characters, or understand anything about them, before Kureishi tears their lives apart. It felt jarring, and I wasn’t sure whether specific events were meant to be meaningful or whether anyone was supposed to care. And it was, at times, quite difficult to like Karim, though that’s likely meant to be the point. Some of the characters’ motivations don’t always make sense, because Kureishi doesn’t quite give you enough to work with (the strange scene in which Terry, a fellow actor, drunkenly bullies Karim into some unspecified and confusing political action for the communist/socialist party feels very unlikely and strange).

Kureishi makes up for these short comings by giving us a character that we can, perhaps, grow up a little bit with, and showing us in the end that the growing-up process is never quite over. All of this with seedy, luscious prose and a distinctive narrative voice, and you have a unique and accomplished piece of fiction, well worth reading even outside of class.

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Comfort Books

Lately I have found myself doing a lot of re-reading, despite my goal to finish all the unread books that clutter my shelves (of which there are many) before I start school this fall. And what I’ve been re-reading! I’m craving the most mindless, frivolous books I have ticked away on the bottom, dusty, hidden shelves: YA Lit by Megan McCafferty. The Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. I’m even tempted to go for some Anne Rice. It is not a coincidence that I’ve been really stressed out lately.

Just as I crave mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese when life is throwing me for a loop, I find myself reaching for comfort books. I am one of those people who can read the same things over and over again, which is part of the reason I never get rid of books, even the cheesy, silly ones. The familiar characters and stories and plots, the sense that I know exactly what’s going to happen next, always makes me feel more secure. I can forget about the open chasm of the unknown in my own story. I can spend time with people (er, ok, fictional people) who will never surprise me or disappoint me. It’s pure escapism, and not just into someone else’s adventures, but into adventures you already know backwards and forwards. It’s almost better than mashed potatoes.

I don’t always reach for the trash on the shelves, like I have been lately. There are a number of books in my collection I’ve read more than I can count–The Time Traveler’s Wife, Harry Potter, E.M. Forster, White Teeth. But sometimes it is the mindlessness that I really want–just something I don’t have to think about, to give my brain a break.
So what is it I’ve been stressing out about lately? Graduate school. More specifically, how to pay for it. I think it’s funny that I’m going into debt for library school when being a librarian isn’t going to make me much money after it’s all said and done. Ahh well. Living on $15,000 a year will be an adventure.

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