TERESA’S BOOKSHELF: Great House by Nicole Krauss

There’s something about Nicole Krauss that, while I like her work, bothers me.

I’ve enjoyed Nicole Krauss’ writing ever since I read her first novel, Man Walks Into A Room. I was fascinated by her insights into memory loss and what that does to a relationship, because I’d seen what Alzheimer’s Disease had done to my family at the time, and while her novel was about memory loss of a different sort, many of the repercussions were the same. I loved that book, and immediately fantasized about being the one allowed to adapt it into a screenplay. 🙂

I enjoyed her second novel, A History of Love, too. But this story had less of an impact on me because of the voice and style she chose to tell it. Perhaps it was because I was used to her husband Jonathan Safran Foer’s style, and it seemed very much like him (making the reading experience visual by using things like lists and charts as part of the narrative, etc), but I felt like she was doing a ventriloquist act. While I enjoyed the characters (particularly the brother, who I thought was underused), and appreciated the story she was trying to tell, it didn’t feel like a natural progression from Man Walks Into a Room, nor did it sound like her voice from what I’d gathered from short stories of hers I’d read.

So, I recently picked up her latest novel, Great House, because I respect her talent as a writer, and was hoping that this book would be more her own. Great House tells the stories of three groups of people that are all connected by an old desk. Once again, Krauss is adept at capturing certain emotional situations – getting older, memory loss, life as a writer – with precision and elegance. There were passages where I recognized myself in what she was describing so much that I had to put the book down, because my heart was racing. The problem I have with this book, though, is that it’s told from the point of view of three different characters, but they all pretty much sound the same, and they all sound “literary.” Rather than have distinct voices with the distinct cadences that come with being at different stages in life, or different education levels, they all sound the same level of poetic and have the same self-awareness.

What’s strange is that, looking back, her first novel was probably really rough. But it also seemed to be a book that wasn’t trying so hard. It was telling an interesting story in an insightful way with characters I cared about, and I loved it. It seems, though, that once that book did so well, her subsequent novels seem to be trying so hard to be art that they forget to be stories. In A History of Love, all the characters are bound together by a manuscript they have in common. In Great House, there’s the desk. She seems to be settling into a formula where story doesn’t matter (There’ll be this central thing that unites the characters, which will allow me to tell the story Magnolia-style, being really insightful about characters and emotions, but not having anything actually happen except that someone, you know, ends up with this thing). Which is interesting, considering that Man Walks Into a Room told a story that was also insightful, and her short story, “Future Emergencies”, managed to tell a story that was bigger than her characters – it was about the post-9/11 world.

Thing is, I really do love Nicole Krauss’ writing. I just wish she put it to better use. I wish she would get out of her comfort zone a little more and risk sounding a little less polished. I’ll probably pick up her next novel, too, but if it’s about a disparate group of people bound together by a central object, I quit.

Next on Teresa’s Bookshelf: Fables Vol. 3: Storybook Love by Bill Willingham, art by Mark Buckingham

Currently Reading: Wild Nights! by Joyce Carol Oates, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Teresa’s Bookshelf: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

I have been preaching the gospel of The Hunger Games since I started reading the series recently, recommending it to everyone I know (even one person I didn’t know!). Catching Fire is the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy, and I bought it while I was still reading the first book, because I knew I’d want it immediately. However, after The Hunger Games, I read My Sister’s Keeper first, because I didn’t want to rush the series. Now, I’m down to one book left, and I already miss it. It’s been a long while since a book has affected me like this.

Catching Fire focuses on Katniss Everdeen’s post-Hunger Games life, and the changing political climate in Panem. The “catching fire” of the title refers to Katniss having been a spark for revolution in the first book, and the idea for revolution now spreading like a brush fire across the country. Catching Fire was a slower, but more thoughtful read than the first. Whereas The Hunger Games sped along, because there was suspense in whether or not Katniss and her friends/family would survive, Catching Fire was more about exploring ideas and fleshing out relationships. It also raised the political stakes, and forces you to ask yourself what you would do in Katniss’ place. Would you stand up against oppression, or would you keep your head down and worry only about your own survival? The answers aren’t simple, and Katniss isn’t a cookie-cutter heroine who is a paragon of activism. She’s a strong girl, but she is also scared and more experienced with taking care of herself than she is with worrying about the larger picture. She is learning to think beyond day-to-day survivial to the kind of world she’d like to grow old in and raise children in.

I also love what Collins has done with Peeta, who matches Katniss in complexity. Honestly, I don’t understand the appeal with Gale. I sort of imagine him as Katniss’ Jordan Catalano – like, yeah he looks great leaning up against a locker…but he can’t read, you know? Granted, he’s a bit more than that, and they’ve been best friends forever, but still.  I’m Team Peeta.

There are also some wonderful new characters in this book. Finnick Odair and Johanna Mason are both deceptively shallow at first, but stick with them. They are intriguing additions to the world of the Hunger Games.

The world of this trilogy gets more complex and mature in this book, and the slow simmer of most of the book gives way to a huge boil at the end when the stakes are raised even higher for everyone.

Collins has amazed me once again with Catching Fire, and I can’t get Panem and its inhabitants out of my head. I’ll be reading another book before reading the final installment, Mockingjay, because I’m just not ready for this story to end!

Currently Reading: Great House by Nicole Krauss

Teresa’s Bookshelf: My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

This is me caught up, and I’m back to the original Teresa’s Bookshelf format: one book per post! Let’s see if we can’t keep it this way!

I’ve had this book on my shelf for several years. It was one of those things where when it came out, the book was really popular and everyone was talking about it so I picked it up with every intention of reading it only to have it get lost on my To Be Read bookshelves. After a healthy diet of sci-fi/fantasy-related stuff (and a token “chick lit” book for good measure), I decided I needed to get back to some good ol’, normal contemporary fiction.

Leave it to me to choose the contemporary novel off my shelf that is science fiction in the truest sense – fiction that incorporates current scientific advancements.

I was fascinated by the topic brought up in My Sister’s Keeper: do parents have the right to concieve a child in a test tube for the sole purpose of being a tissue match for a sick child they already have? And if so, do they have the right to continue to expect that the new child continue to donate organs and marrow and platelets without being asked? Does the child have the right to say no if it means the death of their sick sibling? Anna, the 13 year old protagonist of the book (the “designer baby”conceived to be a match for her sister, Kate, who has a rare form of leukemia), thinks that she should, and so she goes to a lawyer and sues her parents for medical emancipation.

Jodi Picoult does an amazing job of examining all sides of this issue by skillfully creating her cast of characters. She allows each character to narrate different chapters in the novel, and each has a distinct, lived-in voice. From 13-year-old Anna, to her mother Sara (40s), to her sarcastic lawyer Campbell, to her older brother Jesse, Picoult pulls off a hell of a ventriloquist act as she careens her characters through a desperate chain of events in which Kate’s life and Anna’s freedom hang in the balance.

In addition to the strength of the characters, Picoult brings the events of the book to a logical conclusion without it being at all predictable. In fact, the ending of the book slapped me in the face! I didn’t see it coming in quite the way it did. Yet, when it happened, I realized that it couldn’t have happened any other way.

My Sister’s Keeper is a book that had me crying as I read the ending on the subway, and had me thinking about it long after I put it down. If you’re looking for a book that will make you examine your own moral and ethical compass as well as make you feel deeply for the characters involved, I’d highly recommend this one.

Currently Reading: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Teresa’s Bookshelf: Breakfast of Champions & Chicks Dig Time Lords

I seem to have read more than I thought this year! Thanks to my Goodreads page that I’ve been faithfully updating since Song of Solomon, I realized that there were books I’d missed in my previous Teresa’s Bookshelf post. I realized, too, that a statement I made on Twitter and Facebook wasn’t true. Of the seven books I’ve read so far in 2010, I have, in fact, read ONE by a man. 🙂 This wasn’t a conscious choice or anything, but I was pleased to note that most of the books I felt compelled to read this year, most of the books I thought would be worth reading, were written by fellow owners of vaginas. That hasn’t always been the case, and it filled me with much pride. In any case, here are the books I missed telling you about in my previous post, including the one by the penis-owner:

BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS by Kurt Vonnegut

After The Sparrow, I wanted to continue on my sci-fi novel kick. My friend, Jean, who isn’t really the biggest sci-fi fan recommended this book to me saying it was awesome and totally “up [my] alley,” so I gave it a whirl. What an intense, weird, hilarious, awesome, brutal, manic-depressive, testosterone-fuelled, craze-fest this novel is! I loved the directness and forcefulness of the prose. I loved the sense of humor. And the concept – a guy thinks that a sci-fi author’s book is a direct message to him from the Creator of the Universe telling him that he’s the only one with free will in the world and everyone else is a robot – is phenomenal. Dwayne Hoover is wonderful in his dysfunction, and Kilgore Trout, the sci-fi author, is an amazingly honest character. Waiting for them to meet as you know they will is as exciting as waiting for two cars that you see speeding toward the same intersection to crash. I’m lucky that the token penis owner that I read this year was the wonderfully crazy Kurt Vonnegut.

What puzzles me is why Jean gave this to me having been reminded of it by a portion of the novel I’m working on. Hmm…

CHICKS DIG TIME LORDS: A Celebration of Doctor Who By the Women Who Love It – Edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea

I had an awesome experience on the subway as I read this book when a woman noticed the cover and said “I have a friend in there!” Turns out, her friend was author Cat Valente, and this girl (Veronica? Victoria? It was a “V” name, and we sadly didn’t exchange info or anything) was a huge Doctor Who fan. We ended up talking about fandom all the way to the end of the line, which was where we both were going, and it was really nice! It was nice to be able to talk to a complete stranger about something that, on the surface, seems incredibly silly, but means more to you than you even realize. Chicks Dig Time Lords is the first non-fiction book I read this year and has to do with women in Doctor Who fandom! I am so glad this book exists. Each of the essays about Doctor Who – by academics, fans, sci-fi writers, etc – analyzed a different aspect of fandom from a feminine perspective. From treatment at conventions to representation on Doctor Who itself, to involvement in fandom via fanfic or cosplay, they all reveal very personal connections to fandom, sometimes criticizing aspects of it, but more often than not celebrating its existence and celebrating the fact that women have always played a role in fandom, even if it hasn’t always been acknowledged specifically. Our numbers are growing every day, and books like this are a way for us to all come together, look each other in the eye and say, “I knew I wasn’t the only one!”

In the next Teresa’s Bookshelf post, you’ll get the skinny on the book I just finished yesterday, My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult.

Currently Reading: Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

Teresa’s Bookshelf: Russell, Weiner, Orringer, Collins

At the beginning of the year, and at the beginning of this blog, I meant to start keeping a record of the books I was reading and offering my thoughts on those books. Not reviews so much as personal impressions (I do enough reviewing elsewhere!). I started with Toni Morrison’s brilliant Song of Solomon, which was the first book I read in 2010. And then I stopped keeping track of them here. However, this doesn’t mean I stopped reading. Far from it. I’ve stayed true to my goal of always having a book on me at all times and reading whenever I have a free moment, usually during a commute. I haven’t read as many books as I would’ve liked so far this year, but I haven’t done too shabbily either. Here’s what I’ve been reading while you weren’t looking:

THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell

At the beginning of this year I realized that, while I’ve watched a lot of sci-fi television, I’ve read comparatively few sci-fi novels. I asked around for recommendations and, knowing that I have a penchant for sci-fi mixed with spirituality, the book that came to the top of everyone’s list for me was The Sparrow, a story of first contact with an alien race by a ragtag group of human civilians financed by the Jesuits.  I’m so glad I read it. First of all, the main chracter is a Puerto Rican priest, and the entire first part of the book takes place at and around the Arecibo Observatory, which just tickles me to no end for obvious reasons. All of the characters are incredibly well-done and none feel superfluous. What I loved most of all was that religion wasn’t presented as an obstacle to a greater reward. Rather, it was presented as the constant for this character. He loves one of the women in the story, but he values the promise he made to God more, and so he lets her go, allowing her to be with someone who ends up being better for her anyway. The book raises some interesting ethical issues that could only arise on another planet, and it really makes you consider, then reconsider the things you value. While it’s definitely science fiction, it reads like a more domestic, literary book, and when hard science makes its appearances, because all the characters are civilians, it is explained in layman’s terms, so it’s easy to follow. Finely etched characters and a story looked at through an unusual prism make this a great choice of novel whether you’re interested in sci-fi or not.

CERTAIN GIRLS by Jennifer Weiner

I’ve been a Jennifer Weiner fan since her first novel, Good in Bed. Certain Girls is sort of a sequel to that book, in that it goes back to check in on Cannie Shapiro, now married to the love of her life, and the mother of a daughter who is about to celebrate her bat mitzvah. What I like about Weiner’s books is that she doesn’t sacrifice intelligence when using the conventions of “chick lit” (a term I hate, but it’s a term that, when you say it, people sort of know what you mean). Her characters aren’t catty and only interested in men and designer shoes. They tend to be regular women who are smart and ambitious and have very real, normal concerns. Cannie, however, is her most successful character in this way, and I feel like it has something to do with Cannie being her most autobiographical character. Both Cannie and her story have a depth to them that books like In Her Shoes don’t. I think Little Earthquakes comes close, but that has so many characters in it that it became a little unwieldy. Certain Girls also focuses on Cannie’s daughter, who is trying to become her own person in the shadow of a very overprotective mother, and she too is a believeable character. It was refreshing to have the narration ping-pong between Cannie and her daughter, getting to see Cannie (and ourselves) through someone else’s eyes. Not only was the story very true-to-life, but the ending was completely unexpected sad in a way that real life is often unexpected and sad. I would highly recommend reading Good In Bed and Certain Girls back to back.

THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE by Julie Orringer

Ever since I read her fabulous short story collection, How to Breathe Underwater, years ago, I’ve been looking forward to a full-length novel by Julie Orringer. Her prose is elegant without being snooty, if that makes any sense, and she’s really great at capturing the voices of young women. So, I snatched up a hardcover copy of The Invisible Bridge the second it came out. It tells the story of a young, Jewish architecture student named Andras who falls in love with an older woman in Hungary just before the beginning of WWII, and the novel follows the couple through the war and its aftermath. I hate to say it, but I was a bit disappointed in this book. Perhaps it was the years of waiting for it, but it just didn’t live up to my expectations of what Orringer would or could do. At the start of the novel, it completely pulled me into the world of these characters. No lie – I found myself going to cafes more often just so I could read this book and feel like I was in Europe. (I’m so fucking pretentious and lame) The love story between Andras and Klara was interesting in the way that their age difference mattered then in a way it wouldn’t matter now (she wasn’t even 10 years older), and their personalities were such that watching them navigate their relationship kept me intrigued. But then The War Came. And that’s kind of the problem with historical fiction about WWII. There are just so many books set there, particularly books about the Jewish experience of it, that unless there is a real reason why this particular story needs to be told in this particular way, the whole thing falls flat. And so once it becomes yet another litany of hardships and horrors, it became clear that there was no reason for this story to exist except that Orringer wanted to tell the story of her family. That is a goal I greatly respect, but it doesn’t make a book interesting. There was one character, Andras’ best friend, Polaner, who was interesting because he was gay in addition to being Jewish. His portions of the story were fascinating and all too brief. I almost wish the novel would’ve been about him instead. Then The Invisible Bridge would have a reason to exist instead of being a superfluous Holocaust novel.

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

It’s the first book in the latest Young Adult trilogy that’s sweeping the nation. There’s already a film in the works, and when the last book in the series, Mockingjay, came out a few months ago, the internet burst with excitement. That excitement was the first I’d ever heard of this series, and after several friends insisted, I decided to give the first book a whirl. This is quite possibly the first time I’ve ever thought that the hype should have been more. The Hunger Games is an intelligent, nuanced story featuring an amazing female protagonist that I hope every young girl makes her role model. Katniss Everdeen is a wonderful character, and Collins doesn’t shy away from putting her through hell. The story of The Hunger Games is surprisingly dark and political for a YA book, and the first-person present tense narration makes it a nail-biting read. I’ve already purchased the second book in the series, Catching Fire, and I know I will love it. The Hunger Games proves that not all YA sci-fi/fantasy fiction has to be painfully written, vapid, or feature helpless girls and glittery vampires.

So, that’s been my reading so far! Well, that and many comic books. I’m currently reading My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, and Catching Fire will be next. After that, I hope to get to Great House by Nicole Krauss, the new novel from another one of my favorite authors. Lots of great reading ahead!

“On the Ground Floor” Online Release Parties!

Who knew that my favorite picture of myself EVER would come about using the camera on my phone in the barthroom at a party?

You read that right, kids.  Parties.  As in plural.  As in MORE THAN ONE.

Because I have fans.  As Felicia Day so eloquently put it in Commentary: The Musical, I have fans in the “baker’s dozens!”  🙂  So, clearly, I have to have two parties to accommodate them all.  Here’s how it’s going to go down:

TOMORROW – September 24th at 8:00PM ET/7PM CT/5PM PT

THE FIRST ON THE GROUND FLOOR RELEASE PARTY! Tune in with a glass of wine for an hour-long celebration of my very first printed thing EVER.  I’ll tell you all about the stories contained therein, tell you how you can snag a copy, do personalized signings online, chat with you all and answer any random questions you might have (they don’t even have to be about me, I’m great at Google searching), and then do a reading of a story NOT in the book!  So, if you watch and buy the chapbook, you’ll be getting THREE short stories for the price of two.  That’s a fucking BARGAIN.

SATURDAY, September 25th at 11:00AM ET/4:00PM GMT

Join me for TEA TIME WITH TERESA! (Didn’t I tell you I was a fan of alliteration?) 4PM is traditionally “tea time” in England, right?  Well, if not, IT IS NOW!  I’m doing this American-style, bitches!  Kinda like how we took all the useless “u’s” out of words like color and favorite.  But this release party for On the Ground Floor is for all the folks who follow me on Twitter, or who are my Facebook friends and live in Europe (and won’t be staying up until 1AM to watch my first party), as well as the early risers in the States.  For some reason, I have a lot of followers in the UK.  I guess it’s because I write about Doctor Who a lot, or something.  Same deal as above, except I’ll be drinking tea instead of wine.  Also, I’ll be reading a DIFFERENT SHORT STORY.  So, it’s not just going to be the same party twice.

This should be fun!  I hope you’ll spread the word and tune in tomorrow and/or Saturday.  Tune in to THE TERESA JUSINO EXPERIENCE’S USTREAM CHANNEL and join in the celebration!

On Turning 30, Part 2: Teresa in the Rye

I started writing this post at the end of last year as part of a series I’d wanted to write On Turning 30.  Then life got in the way, and I never got around to it.  However, now seems the perfect time to talk about this particular experience.

RIP, JD Salinger. Thanks for giving me so much to think about.

If you really wanna hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was when I first read it, and how bowled over I was by the whole thing, and how it hit me “right here,” and all that nostalgic kind of crap, but it didn’t happen that way at all, if you want to know the truth.

I first read Catcher in the Rye when I was fifteen.  It was in old Ms. O’Leary’s tenth grade Advanced English class at Elmont Memorial High School.

And I hated it.

Maybe hate is too strong a word, but I just didn’t see what the big deal was.  Everyone else in class talked about how much they loved it, and how much they related to it, or identified with it, or saw themselves in it, and they all seemed phony as hell.  I didn’t see myself at all.  I thought Holden was a goddamn pretentious bastard, if you want to know the truth.  He kept seeing phoniness in everything, and I almost wanted to reach into the book and tell him that he was looking at everything all cockeyed.  I mean, I knew he was depressed and all, but I didn’t have to like it.  Take DB, for example.  Holden called him a prostitute because he was living out in Hollywood.  Said he should be in New York writing stories. But then there were some movies that would really knock him out, and I’d want to tell him, “What if DB’s making those movies?  What if he can save Hollywood from being too phony?”  But Holden would never see things that way.  He’d refuse to, all hardheaded.  I thought he was a madman.  I guess, what with him ending up in a hospital and all, he was.

One day, I finally told old Ms. O’Leary that I didn’t like that book.  She gave me this look.  That look where an adult looks at you like they’ve got this secret they’ve told everyone but you, but they aren’t going to tell you, because they’re having too much fun watching you wonder about it.  She says to me, “Read it again in fifteen years.  You might feel differently about it then.”  I thought, no way in hell am I going to read this book again.  I didn’t say this to old Ms. O’Leary, though.  I told her I’d think about it.  She was one of those teachers who, even though she was giving me that look like she knows everything, she usually didn’t.  Usually she treated me like what I had to say was important.  It was almost like she wasn’t a teacher and I wasn’t just a kid.  She was one of the few teachers at old EMHS that didn’t make me want to toss my cookies all over the damn place.  I didn’t want to make her feel bad or anything.

I forgot about Catcher for a while.  I mean, I had college to worry about, and then getting a goddamn job.  I couldn’t sit around thinking about things I promised to teachers when I was fifteen.  I mean, I couldn’t be expected to just keep thinking about it for Chrissake.  But then I went and got old, and a couple of days before my thirtieth birthday, I remembered old Ms. O’Leary and Catcher in the Rye and how I actually still had a copy somewhere.  I was actually just starting to write things myself then, so I thought it’d be a good idea to read this book that everyone went hog wild for and see what all the fuss was really about.  Maybe I could learn something.  I mean, clearly this JD Salinger knew how to pull the wool over people’s eyes.  Maybe if I figured out how to do it, I could be rolling in dough one day and spend the rest of my life on some island somewhere drinking margaritas and talking about how I used to be a goddamn writer.

What happened wasn’t like anything I expected.

Holden felt familiar to me.  Not just because I’d read this book before and I was re-visiting him, but it was like I really knew him, or at least knew people like him.  When I was fifteen, he sounded goddamn pretentious, like he knew it all.  But when I read it now, he kind of knocks me out.  Like, he’s putting on a tough face, but he’s really sweet.  And that’s when it hit me like a ton of bricks.  I was in the middle of the book wondering how I could have ever thought Holden was so lousy, when I realized that I really was a lot like him when I was fifteen.  I mean, I wasn’t crazy or anything like that.  And I think I was able to look more on the bright side than he was.  But I thought I knew it all, too.  I thought I had the world figured out.  I got bent out of shape over Holden, because he was too close to what I was like and I didn’t want to see it.  I guess I thought that hating his guts would mean that he wasn’t anything like me at all, so I wouldn’t have to worry that I was a pretentious bastard.  Or whatever the girl version of a bastard is.

They don’t really call girls bastards, do they?  Even though girls can be bastard kids, too.  I wonder why that is?

Anyway, so I re-read Catcher in the Rye fifteen years after I read it the first time after all.  Just like I promised old Ms. O’Leary.  And do you know what?  It really knocked me out this time.  I wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of mine and I could call him up on the phone whenever I felt like it.  But I know that even if he were a terrific friend of mine, I wouldn’t be able to call him whenever I felt like it now anyway, and that makes me blue as hell.