Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin

I gravitate to the classics and new literary fiction. I very rarely review anything that hasn't been published in the last year. So, I thought that it would be fun to do a retro review. I chose a novel that wasn't exactly hailed for its literary prowess, but was influential in its own right. Maybe this will become a series of reviews? We'll see... 

Spoiler-free summary:
Rosemary Woodhouse and her husband Guy have moved into the apartment of their dreams.The Bramford, their new, elaborate building has a tumultuous past, but Rosemary and Guy are confident that the building's days of suicides and cultish misfits are over. As they become settled in their new home, Guy's acting career picks up and Rosemary is overjoyed to learn that she's expecting. Their neighbors, Minnie and Roman, encourage them and nurse Rosemary through her painful pregnancy. However, Rosemary suspects that their new creepy neighbors might have hidden motives for helping them in their time of need...

.....

I haven't seen the movie, but many people have told me it is boring. If the movie is structured anything like the novel, I can see how you would get that impression. The first seventy percent of the novel is about Rosemary adjusting to pregnancy, decorating her new apartment, meeting the neighbors, and being generally domesticated. It was somewhat interesting to read now, in 2014, because her housekeeping and prenatal techniques seem a little antiquated (Rosemary is my alcoholism role model). I can't imagine how boring this would have been to readers at the time of publication, though. I only persevered through these mundane descriptions of wifehood because I thought they were quaint. I'm having a hard time finding information about the initial reception of the novel.

Rosemary's suspicions aren't fully aroused until way, way toward the end of the novel. At first this pissed me off, but then I realized that my anger toward Rosemary was exactly what Levin wanted us to feel (at least, I hope). We are lulled into complacency along with Rosemary. We are swept into her world of shopping, decorating, and impending motherhood while the "crazy" allegations of witchcraft are driven into the background. In fact, we don't actually get any confirmation concerning Rosemary's fears until, in the last few pages of the novel, we are shown Rosemary's yellow-eyed, claw-handed baby. The story unfolds for us as it unfolded for Rosemary. For me, who thought this novel was going to be akin to a thriller, I was pleased to find that this novel is much more psychological than I initially suspected.

The writing isn't so hot. Rosemary and her husband give each other a lot of looks that magically transmit entire unspoken sentences to one another (For example, I look at you with a glint in my eyes that says, "No, this isn't an example of witchcraft or ESP, they're just shakily written characters"). But despite the iffy writing, I was still drawn into the plot, so it must not have been that bad.

Give Rosemary's Baby a chance. It's a fun glimpse into the world of 1960's domesticity with a little satanism on the side.

Photo: Dell (NY)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Spoiler-free summary:
S. is the literature project by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. Presented as an old library book, the story of S. unfolds within the novel Ship of Theseus. Two scholars, Jen and Eric, communicate in the margins. They converse through notes, newspaper clippings, and photographs stuffed between the pages. They soon find they share a passion for the mysterious author V.M. Straka and resolve to figure out his true identity together. However, as they read through his novel, they learn that other, more sinister forces are also working to figure out the identity of the novelist.

.....



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Before we get to the story, I want to say that I love how this book looks, and I love how this book feels. It even smells good. S. is a work of tactile art. It begs to be looked at, to be felt. Search Instagram for the "#shipoftheseus" tag - you'll see what I mean. I secretly wish every book looked like this.

I do have to admit that I was afraid to take this book places, even in the slipcase, because I was convinced that all of the little postcards and letters would fall out. When I was reading, I'd often have to shove things back in place. I can definitely see how this book upsets librarians - the Cleveland library canceled their order of this book after complaints arose concerning the "ephemera" becoming misplaced.
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The margin notes are fun at first - I liked Jen and Eric's handwriting, the different pens they used, the way they related the prose to their lives, but I really underestimated just how long it would take to get through all of these. Every page had what felt like another page of notes attached. Whenever I'd come across a three-page-folded-up note from Jen or Eric, I'd sigh. Jen became a little flat as the novel went on. Every time she mentioned her ex-boyfriend or her boring problems with her parents I wanted to scream. I just couldn't feel sorry for her. I began to dread their banter and when I reached those rare pages that they hadn't scribbled upon, I was relieved.

So, the worry that I'd lose one of the inserts coupled with the added
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tedium of reading all of the margin notes made this a very long, strenuous read.

Don't get me wrong - this wasn't what bothered me about this book. I like long, difficult reads (sometimes). It's just that I constantly felt like I was missing something, no matter how hard I was working to keep it all straight. Maybe it's meant to be that way, that the confusion is part of the art, but I'm not used to feeling like I'm flailing while reading. I just felt worried.

The novel itself, Ship of Theseus, is enjoyable on its own. Perhaps its a bit heavy-handed with symbolism and ideology, but Jen and Eric need these clues to set their own search straight. I loved the interactions between S. and his mysterious, but familiar love interest. I was so excited about the subplot concerning the translator of Ship of Theseus and her own relationship to Straka. I am happy to say that it was sad enough for me. Very few things are.

Buy S. now in hardcover from Amazon.

Photos: Instagram and Mulholland Books

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Spoiler-free summary:
[This summary is from Helene Wecker's website. I really liked it, and the summary I wrote was not doing the novel justice. I have a special talent for sucking all of the magic out of a book]
An immigrant tale that combines elements of Jewish and Arab folk mythology, The Golem and the Jinni tells the story of two supernatural creatures who arrive separately in New York in 1899. One is a golem, created out of clay to be her master’s wife—but he dies at sea, leaving her disoriented and overwhelmed as their ship arrives in New York Harbor. The other is a jinni, a being of fire, trapped for a thousand years in a copper flask before a tinsmith in Manhattan’s Little Syria releases him.

Each unknown to the other, the Golem and the Jinni explore the strange and altogether human city. Chava, as a kind old rabbi names her, is beset by the desires and wishes of others, which she can feel tugging at her. Ahmad, christened by the tinsmith who makes him his apprentice, is aggravated by human dullness. Both must work to create places for themselves in this new world, and develop tentative relationships with the people who surround them.

And then, one cold and windy night, their paths happen to meet.

.....

I'm going to be honest: I read this because I thought the cover was pretty. I'm glad I did, though, because I really enjoyed it. When the early reviews started rolling in, I said, "Not another book about a golem..." (because for some reason I think there have been tons of these when really the only one I've read that was remotely close is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay).

Parts of the plot dragged - I knew that Chava and Ahmad would meet (as implied by the title), so the time before that scene felt very long. I also found any reference to Michael Levy boring and slow. I didn't believe that he could have truly overlooked so much of Chava's demeanor and this disbelief made any attempt by the author to convince us otherwise excruciating. I was also bothered by how stricken Michael is when he finds out that Chava is indeed a golem. He has insisted the entire novel that he has no need for religion and mysticism, yet when he finds his dead uncle's notes claiming that Chava is a being part of that religion, he completely falls apart. He didn't resist enough - he wasn't skeptical. I suppose we're meant to assume that Michael never really lost his faith after all - he becomes emotional when prayers are said, he attends religious burial rites for his uncle, etc - but I just don't buy it.

I thought the Rabbi's sudden illness (and subsequent death) was a little forced. I agree, he has to die for the plot to move on, but, perhaps some hints earlier on would have been nice. It felt like his decline happened in the course of an afternoon.

However, the last forty pages of this book were amazing - they completely brought together the entire novel. The whole thing was suddenly believable, mysticism and all. I forgave Michael Levy and the Rabbi for being mostly flat characters, because the relationship between the golem and the jinni had enough emotion, honesty, and dimension to carry them through.

Buy The Golem and the Jinni today in ebook, paperback, hardcover, and audiobook format from Amazon.com.

Photo and summary: Harper Perennial

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Spoiler-free summary (and this is a horrible summary, please forgive me. It's so hard to summarize something that's not linear...):
Ursula Todd is a young woman coming to age between the two World Wars in England. She's a strange girl who knows things she shouldn't know and has tendencies to listen to the ominous premonitions that occur to her. As she struggles with coming to terms with her strange gift, she must also learn how to survive during the relentless bombing of London during WWII. As she grows, she realizes that she is repeating her life, over and over, until she gets it right.

.....

I really liked this novel, but it wasn't sad enough for me. Ultimately, she uses her gift to change the history of the world and to save countless lives, which is admirable, but, in my mind, it would have been more touching if she used this massive gift to do something small and personal. In my deeply flawed world, "getting it right" would include a tragically wonderful love affair, a happy home, etc Though I guess that begs the question: Who determines what "getting it right" means?

I appreciated that Atkinson allowed her characters to be born again and again, reincarnated as themselves without heavy religious undertones. Buddhist concepts are discussed, as are the character's inclinations/responsibilities to attend church, but Ursula is largely allowed to speculate upon her situation by herself. Ursula is highly independent and it is somewhat thrilling to watch her vaguely become aware of what is happening and to adapt accordingly.

I love this cover.
I also loved that Ursula was never completely sure about what was going on - there were only dim hints along the way, feelings in the pit of her stomach, passing deja vu. This allowed readers (who most likely are not born again and again) to relate to Ursula and to wonder about themselves. The mechanics of her reincarnation are never laid bare to the readers and this adds to the mystical quality of the book.

I thought, at times, that the characters of Sylvie and Maurice were a little flat or inconsistent. We are
introduced to Sylvie very early on in the book and she seems to be a deep, brooding character who also has a sense of fun and mischief. She appeared to be a loving and doting mother, yet she absolutely hates her son Maurice. Is this a natural reaction to one's own son? I'm not sure. And how is she able to turn on Ursula so easily? It seems that she and Ursula are very similar, so it surprised me that she was able to completely turn off her love for her. Yes, what Ursula did was something dangerous and drastic, but Ursula handled it as best she could. I just couldn't imagine Sylvie being that angry for that long. The same is true for Maurice - he is horrible from the start with almost no redeeming qualities. Everyone in his family despises him. I found this a bit far fetched. Can someone be horrible all of the time? Even as a child?

Also, what was going on between Sylvie and George Glover!?

Overall, I thought Life After Life was a magical, thought-provoking read. There are rumors circulating concerning a companion novel that will shed light on Teddy's side of the story. I don't know if I loved Life After Life (or Teddy) enough to read it, but I'll consider.

Buy Life After Life now in e-book, audio, paperback, or hardcover format at Amazon.

Photos: Back Bay Books