If on a Winter's Night a Traveler

I think I can safely say that Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler was the weirdest book I have ever read. It's a story about a reader trying to read a book called If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. There are twenty-two chapters, and every odd chapter is about you, the reader, and your process of reading and every even chapter is the start of another book. The book begins like this, to give you a taste of Calvino's style:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room...
And it takes some time getting used to; second person narration is always strange. Calvino ruminates on books and reading ("but how to establish the exact moment in which a story begins?") and readers vs. editors and the whole story itself was... It is #69 on the list of the Telegraph's 100 novels you should read, described as "international book fraud is exposed in this playful postmodernist puzzle." Interspersed with the story of the Reader trying to find a complete edition of If on a Winter's Night a Traveler are ten different genres of story. Each of these excerpts offers a different look into the opinions of the Reader (not you, the reader, but the Reader (the protagonist of the story) - confusing!) I think the best way for me to end this review is to copy a review of an Amazon customer -
Read chapter 1. Finished chapter 1. Began chapter 2. Scratched my head. Finished chapter 2. Began chapter 3. Began laughing at the game Calvino was playing with me. And wondering what he was going to do to me next. I would never have guessed all the different roads I would go down as I read this book. You'll fall in love. You'll pull your hair out. You'll throw the book across the room. And then you'll go pick it up again. Any attempts to describe this book any better than this will either not be well-understood or will ruin the effect of discovering it for yourself. If you are prepared to put aside your standard concepts of literary narrative and explore a new experiment, this book is definitely for you.
Definitely worth the read. Rating: ★★★★


Fates and Furies

Wow. I read this entire novel on the train home from the Lake District, and I was gobsmacked. That seems like the only appropriate word for my reactions on Lauren Groff's novel Fates and Furies. I borrowed the book from my library on my kindle on a whim, without really reading a synopsis or any reviews. I just thought the title looked interesting and it was marked a finalist for the 2015 national book award (this list also steered me in the right direction with Adam Johnson's Fortune Smiles). Another advantage to reading this book on my kindle was that I was entirely shocked when I thought I reached the end of the novel and clicked on progress to learn I was only halfway through. Fates and Furies is the story of Fate through the eyes of the husband, Lotto, and Fury through the eyes of the wife, Mathile. When I reached the end of Lotto's narration, I thought the story had ended... oh, was I wrong (this is not spoiling anything, have no fear). There was a lot I loved about this novel, but I think my favorite was the bracketed asides of the narrator, who gives an omnipresent perspective. For example, Chapter 2 begins (again, I promise I won't spoil you):
 A unity, marriage, made of discrete parts. Lotto was loud and full of light; Mathilde, quiet, watchful. Easy to believe that his was the better half, the one that set the tone. It’s true that everything he’d lived so far had steadily built toward Mathilde. That if his life had not prepared him for the moment she walked in, there would have been no them. The drizzle thickened to drops. They hurried across the last stretch of beach. [Suspend them there, in the mind’s eye: skinny, young, coming through dark toward warmth, flying over the cold sand and stone. We will return to them. For now, he’s the one we can’t look away from. He is the shining one.]
In an interview, Groff speaks of these bracketed asides and how she originally intended the novel to be split into two. The asides were what linked them together and allowed some glimpse into the "truth" of what was happening. The NYT Book review writes, "If you approach Fates and Furies without great expectations, you’re much likelier to appreciate it for the bumpy but alluring effort that it is, and even for its touch of evil." The story is this mix of raw emotion and suspense and wives of playwrights and Greek tragedy/comedy and I don't quite have the words to describe it and I also don't want to tell you more because I think you should be absorbed in the story on your own [go read it without googling the plot]. Rating: ★★★★★


What to Read on a Plane

Hello! Thought I would do five short reviews of some good reads for travel (ideally a plane ride, but a train ride is also wonderful). Send me your current favorite books, because I have a lot of travel upcoming... Without further ado, here are five books I've read in the past year or two (spanning many genres) that are perfect for those long waits in an airport or for when you can't sleep on a redeye or when your train is barreling through some countryside:
  1. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari (nonfiction, humor, essays): described as a "hilarious, thoughtful, and in-depth exploration of the pleasures and perils of modern romance," comedian Aziz Ansari (of Parks & Recreation fame, his new TV show Master of None was actually released today on Netflix) decides to combine surprisingly extensive research (it was co-written with a social scientist) with funny anecdotes to look at dating in the modern age. 
  2. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (fantasy, magic): tells the story of a world below London, following the life of an ordinary man who falls through the cracks. A fun fantasy story that has become a "touchstone of urban fantasy" and keeps you intrigued start to finish.
  3. A Guide for the Perplexed by Dara Horn (fiction, realistic-ish, Jew-ish): three stories intertwine across centuries, all focused on memory. I don't want to spoil anything, but the story opens with "what happens to days that disappear?" and follows a software developer's application that records everything in your life, a professor who travels to Cairo in the 1800s, and parts of the story of Maimonides. Sounds super disjointed but wonderfully woven together. 
  4. The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (crime, thriller, mystery): the first in a series about private investigator Cormoran Strike who investigates the suicide of a supermodel. Fun fact: Galbraith is the pseudonym for famed Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling. Riveting and I didn't see the plot twist coming at all...A solid crime novel. 
  5. Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro (short stories-ish): novel divided into what felt like short stories, but really snippets of the protagonist's life. Centers on a theme of "womanhood" (the title gives that away) and was a really interesting look into a teenage girl growing up and trying to make sense of her place in the world, of her body, her sexuality, and her life. 
Happy travels & happy reading & if you're ever in London, check out Daunt Books (a travel bookstore where books are organized by geography and its absolutely lovely)! 


The Captain's Daughter

Alexander Pushkin's historical novel, The Captain's Daughter, caught my eye in the sale section of the bookstore I was wandering through yesterday. I remembered Pushkin from a comparative literature course I had taken ("Short Fiction: Russia & the West," we read Pushkin's "Queen of Spades", which you should go read if you haven't) and figured for £3, it was worth the purchase of what the back of the book described as "a fairy tale and a thrilling historical novel." And over the course of three hours, I was totally engrossed into the story of Pyotr Grinyov. Pushkin based the story on the real rebellion of Pugachev (also known as the Cossack rebellion). Ultimately, I read The Captain's Daughter as a love story more than a commentary on the historical happenings. One of my favorite parts of the book were the small epigraphs before each chapter, attributed as "popular saying" or "song" or from popular authors of time. The epigraph at the start of the novel says "take care of your honor when you are young." Throughout the story, Pyotr is honest, courageous, and giving. You have faith that things will work out in his favor (just like you know James Bond is always going to turn out okay). The poem prefacing Chapter 9 ("Parting") reads
Meeting you, sweetheart,
Made my heart whole;
Leaving you, sweetheart,
Is the loss of my soul.
 -- Kheraskov
A silly little love poem poem kind of represents what I loved so much about this story - it was embedded with so much culture and history of the time. While it was definitely an fantastical version of history (the commentary describes how the Pugachev of the story is a the Pugachev of folk legend), the descriptions of various characters  made it accessible. The Empress is described as a stranger at first: "she looked about forty years old. Her plump, rosy face was calm and dignified; her slight smile and light blue eyes had an ineffable charm..." Definitely a great work of Russian fiction, and a lovely, short read if you're looking for a historical escape. Rating:★★★★★


A Tale for the Time Being

"A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be."
A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, was one of the most entrancing books I've read this year. It tells the tale of 16-year-old Nao and Ruth (who shares a lot of characteristics in common with the author) and how Ruth finds Nao's book washed up on the shore of her remote western Canadian island. It focuses heavily on disaster and suicide and I won't spoil anything for you besides that I'm tagging this "buddhism," "climate change," "Japan," "Canada" and "family..." I don't really know how to process the story. Visceral and graphic and poetic and mysterious... I can't put my finger on what made Ozeki's story work so well. One review writes that the story is "a fascinating multigenerational tapestry of long ago, recent past, and present" and "the writing resonates with an immediacy and rawness that is believable and touching." (review) "Rawness" is definitely an appropriate word to describe the story. A Tale for the Time Being was reality rooted in a framework of Japanese history and climate change fears, but also intertwined with myth and religion and ideas about consciousness and living in the now. I can't really explain the plotline, besides encouraging to read it for yourself. The New York Times Books Review puts it more succinctly than I can: "Many of the elements of Nao’s story — schoolgirl bullying, unemployed suicidal “salarymen,” kamikaze pilots — are among a Western reader’s most familiar images of Japan, but in Nao’s telling, refracted through Ruth’s musings, they become fresh and immediate, occasionally searingly painful." The dual stories of Nao and Ruth worked so wonderfully well and the ending left me wanting so much more... Rating: ★★★★★ 


The Last Resistance

A collection of essays examining "Zionist identity and imagination," Jaqueline Rose's book The Last Resistance was an interesting read. I can't say I loved it (the emphasis on Freud went a little over my head), as the guardian review said it wasn't "an easy read. Rose's critique, weaving back and forth between Freud and Zweig, Grossman and Jabotinsky, is a dense tapestry of literature and psychoanalysis that seeks to define the nature of her race and her religion, then strip away the contortions of Zionism." Regardless of the density of the material, I found some of her insights to be extremely intriguing. Her musings on evil and suicide bombings were particularly interesting. The world's first suicide terrorists were probably two militant Jewish revolutionary groups against the Romans, the Zealots and the Sicarii (126).
Suicide bombing is most often considered as a peculiarly monstrous, indeed inhuman, aberration that cannot - or indeed must not - be understood... suicide bombing is in itself an act of passionate identification - you take the enemy with you in a deadly embrace. As Israel becomes a fortress state, and the Palestinians are shut into their enclaves, with less and less possibility of contact between the two sides, suicide bombing might be, tragically, the closest they can get. (127). 
While I think Rose spends too much time on Freud in the first few chapters, when she delves into the comparisons between Palestinians and Israelis, it gets extremely interesting. I don't know if I would recommend the book as a whole, some of her essays are definitely worth the read. Try "Failed State" in London Review of Books (On David Grossman). Rating: ★★★


The Lady in Gold

The story begins “never had a little old Jewish lady in Los Angeles called Austria so much trouble.” Telling the tale of Maria Altmann’s quest to have Gustav Klimt’s paintings of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer returned from Austria, Anne Marie O’Connor’s The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is an enthralling and enlightening read (thanks to my mom & grandma for the recommendation). O’Connor begins with Klimt and the Jewish bourgeoisie at the turn of the century. Stefan Zweig wrote “whoever wished to put through something in Vienna” or “sought appreciation as well as an audience was dependent on the Jewish bourgeoisie.” She details the response to Klimt’s paintings – a “rare acknowledgement of female sexual desire.” Parallel to understanding the world of Klimt and Adele (and their hinted-at relationship), O’Connor describes Hitler’s relationship with the art world. Not only is the book an examination of Maria’s quest for the paintings of Adele, but of the Nazi looting of art and of post-war Austria’s refusal to acknowledge many origins of their masterpieces. “The Austrian Gallery had amassed an excellent Klimt collection during the war, and they did not intend to give it back.” O’Connor is clearly sympathetic to Maria’s case, but nonetheless presents a fully fleshed-out story. Adele is “frozen in Vienna’s golden moment” but represents the dual question of what defines cultural property (“when patrimony is the arm of genocide”) and what is the value of artwork that evokes the “theft of six million lives?” Definitely worth a read – especially after seeing Klimt’s work displayed at the Belvedere. Rating: ★★★★


Off the Map

Subtitled “Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places, and What They Tell Us About the World,” Alastair Bonnett’s Off the Map (sold in America under the title Unruly Places) was a fascinating collection of places that do not exist within the realm of traditional maps. As the back of the book describes, the book “takes us to the ends of the earth" and "shows us that topophilia, the love of place, is a fundamental part of what it is to be human.” I found it fascinating, full of fun facts and insights into human connection to place. Because the book was a collection of places, here are two examples in order to give a sense of what the book was like:
  1. Arne: a village in the English Channel evacuated in 1942, and where a decoy factory was built. As I learned, “decoys were widely employed throughout England during the war” (22) meant to divert bombers from cities. By June 1944, decoy sites around England were attacked on 730 occasions. After the war, Arne was permanently abandoned. 
  2.  Mount Athos: in the section on “Places of Exception,” about places that exist within other places (i.e. embassies), I found Mount Athos the most fascinating. It is a 50-km long peninsula that extents into the Aegean Sea off the coast of Greece, with twenty Greek Orthodox monasteries built into the mountain. Women are banned from Athos – female humans and female animals. Mount Athos is an example about the “deep sense of anxiety about the presence of women” (190) that exist within world religions. 
 Bonnett does a fantastic job of taking the reader across the world, into places known and unknown. It was a book of “floating islands, dead cities, and hidden kingdoms.” There are forty-seven places explained within the book, demarcated into seven sections: Lost Spaces, Hidden Geographies, No Man’s Lands, Dead Cities, Spaces of Exception, Enclaves & Breakaway Nations, Floating Islands, and Ephemeral Places. As one review describes, "A conversational, thoroughly researched, and very engaging armchair tour of what might be seen as a parallel planet to the one we live in every day—one in which nothing is ordinary...Alastair Bonnett is a most excellent traveling companion." Perfect for travel, or no travel at all. If you’re looking for a fascinating look into place, or just an escape from wherever you are, pick up this book. Rating: ★★★★


Why Not Me?

Mindy Kaling has published a second collection of essays (a follow up Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, my blog post about that one here) which was better than the first. I read it while waiting to board my flight (thanks to the generous amount of time I had at the airport, also shoutout to my other blog emburack.blogspot.com that has really just been given out to family as of now, follow me on there to hear about some adventures I'm having abroad). I was engrossed not only by Mindy's humor but her perspectives on various things like ambition, women in the workplace, body image, boyfriends... etc. As she writes in her introduction, "The truth is, it’s hard to get people to like you, but it’s even harder to keep people liking you. You’d have to bring in Skittles every single day. The result of my not caring so much about what I say allows me to care more about how I say it. I think it makes my writing more personal and more enjoyable." She is full of nuggets of wisdom. She also had a chapter on sorority life at Dartmouth, and she was a member of my house (Sigma Delta, a local sorority) for a term. The house has changed considerably since her experiences in the late 90s, but it was neat to see her experiences with a place that I consider such a large part of my college experience. Another favorite section of her book was the short chapter entitled "A Perfectly Reasonable Request," where she outlines her ideal boyfriend:
What I'm asking for is not that much. I just want a boyfriend who is sweet and trustworthy. That’s it. He doesn’t need to have a perfect body or look like George Clooney. I want a guy who wants to curl up on a Friday night and watch Netflix. He can even pick the show. I mean, ideally, it’s serialized and female-driven, and maybe not that boring political one. But honestly, I don’t care. It’s not important.
As one review describes, the book "takes readers through parts of Kaling's life with the same energy and fearlessness that mark her comedy." I thought it was a super enjoyable and insightful read that I would highly recommend. Rating: ★★★★★


The Magician's Land

"That was one thing about books: once you read them they couldn't be unread." The third book in Lev Grossman's stunning "Magicians trilogy" were as engrossing (if not more) than the first in the series, The Magicians (read about my thoughts on that one, from August 2011 oh boy). The story is simple. The protagonist is Quentin Coldwater, a twenty-something who has been educated at a college for magicians and is now king of a magical land that he once believed to be fictional. Saving the world shenanigans ensue. But the emotional punch that the stories pack is so much more than the story. The third book in the trilogy begins with an epigraph excerpted from C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle: "Further up and further in!" and the story begins: "The letter had said to meet in a bookstore..." And further in to the story the readers go. Lev Grossman has combined Chronicles of Narnia with the darker sides of Harry Potter and Donna Tart's The Secret History to create his Magicians trilogy.
It captures Quentin finding himself (as cliché as that is) through something as absurd as magic and it makes it feel real. The Magician King, the second book in the series, alternates POVs with Quentin and Julia, and Julia's story tells of depression and what you have to give up to get what you want. What you have to go through, what depths you allow yourself to sink, before you achieve your goals. The Magician's Land, as the NYT book review writes (and I wholeheartedly agree with): "The Magician’s Land is the strongest book in Grossman’s series. It not only offers a satisfying conclusion to Quentin Coldwater’s quests, earthly and otherwise, but also considers complex questions about identity and selfhood as profound as they are entertaining." The minutia of the magic gets a little tedious at times, but the story is quick-paced and enjoyable. The characters grow over the series and Quentin turns way more likeable and supporting characters get fleshed-out backstories. The series is also being turned into a TV show premiering in 2016, so if you want to stay ahead of the pop-culture curve, read on! I'll end with a great quote from the third book, after Quentin stumbles into a bookstore: "It didn't matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home." Rating: ★★★★★