Mr. Muo's Traveling Couch by Dai Sijie

Having enchanted readers on two continents with Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie now produces a rapturous and uproarious collision of East and West, a novel about the dream of love and the love of dreams. Fresh from 11 years in Paris studying Freud, bookish Mr. Muo returns to China to spread the gospel of psychoanalysis. His secret purpose is to free his college sweetheart from prison. To do so he has to get on the good side of the bloodthirsty Judge Di, and to accomplish thathe must provide the judge with a virgin maiden. This may prove difficult in a China that has embraced western sexual mores along with capitalism–especially since Muo, while indisputably a romantic, is no ladies’ man. Tender, laugh-out-loud funny, and unexpectedly wise, Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch introduces a hero as endearingly inept as Inspector Clouseau and as valiant as Don Quixote.

I read Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress pre-blogging and really liked it. When I saw that the Chicago Tribune blurbed that "fans of Dai Sijie's Balzac will adore this enchanting adventure story," I went ahead and bought it. Unfortunately, I didn't find this novel nearly as enjoyable as Sijie's earlier work, but I think it's me and not the book. It reads beautifully, but I had a hard time connecting with the characters and the plot. I found my attention wavering every 15-20 pages and had a hard time getting pulled in. If the novel wasn't on the shorter side at under 300 pages , I probably wouldn't have finished it. 

The majority of the novel follows Mr. Muo as he searches for a virgin to give to a judge in exchange for the freedom of his college sweetheart, who was accused of selling pictures of people beaten by police. In his quest Mr. Muo finds himself in one absurd situation to the next, and without knowing it, this journey becomes one of self-transformation. His return to China, and his quest to find a virgin, proves to be harder than he thought, as it's modernization and desire for development has transformed the nation on a social and political level.  
His search for a virgin was not helped by demographics: the majority of the generation among whom the virginal were mainly to be found had abandoned the countryside. Dreamers, by contrast, were to be found everywhere.
I did like that there were many instances in this adventure story that felt magical and dream-like. Because Mr. Muo has studied dreams and psychoanalysis, Sijie used a stream-of-consciousness-like style and ethereal descriptions of everyday observances that made me feel like this was part magical realism, part modern fairy tale (a broomstick mistaken for a woman's ankle!?). There were instances that really did feel magical and for that, I commend Sijie. It was as if the setting of the novel was an enchanted version of our world. However about midway through the book this feeling wore off a bit and began to feel trite. The plot was meandering throughout, which is to be expected with a steam-of-consciousness-like style, but after awhile I wanted something more to happen. There are points of absurdity that had me laughing out loud, and a lot of Muo's analysis of dreams are humorous, but in the end I wanted the plot to move along and a resolution to surface. Sijie explores themes of eastern vs. western culture throughout the novel, which makes me question if I'm too stuck in my western ways to fully appreciate this eastern novel. 

Publisher: Anchor, 2003


The Story of "Keep Calm and Carry On"

Two things about this video. Firstly, I've seen the "Keep Calm and Carry On" signs and posters all over the place as of late, but until I watched this video earlier today I had no idea what kind of historical significance the message carried. I'm sure I'm in the minority on recently gaining this bit of knowledge, but if you too don't know the back story, you've got to watch this short video. It's a lovely and inspiring story. Secondly, this bookstore from which the sign was rediscovered, Barter Books, looks like heaven on earth. I'm not sure I've seen a more magical looking bookstore in my existence. It's no wonder it was named one of the 20 most beautiful bookstores in the world. I'm thinking this place might have to go on my bucket list. 

Have you been to Barter Books? What did you think? After tweeting this video earlier, Ana directed me toward her post that details her visit there. So jealous!


Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

My apologies that The Hunger Games have taken over the blog this week. I just happened to read the second book and see the first movie within the same week. Also, my thoughts below contain spoilers, so skip it if you haven't yet read Catching Fire

I do a lot of my reading in the evening, usually devoting an hour or two before I go to sleep to reading. What I've come to realize about reading the Hunger Games series is that they give me wicked disturbing nightmares. When i'm actually reading the book I'm not scared or overly shaken, but I think the notion of killing other humans to survive and the setting of this dystopian future must manifest itself in my brain and bring these crazy dark thoughts forth when I fall asleep. 

Anyhow, beyond the nightmares, I did like this book, but I thought the first was better. I felt like the first half of this one lagged and didn't really pick up until it was announced they would be going back into the hunger games. (Even the hunger games in this book weren't nearly as exciting as they were in the first.)  It's also a pet peeve of mine when authors reiterate plot points from the first book in a series into a second, as if the audience forgot main parts of the first book. Suzanne Collins did just that, quite often, which got on my nerves. 

But once I got beyond that, my interest was sparked after Katniss met the two women from district 8 in the woods and they related their belief that District 13 was never actually demolished, citing the mockingjay that continually appears in the upper right corner of the screen. That was really the first scene when I thought okay, this is going to get good. I also liked how it examined the life of the winning tributes beyond the hunger games, and what kind of live they eventually live. 

I think Catching Fire might be more of a bridge between the first and third novels of the series than a stand alone gem, like Hunger Games. It lacked the magic and and excitement that the first exuded. I do plan on reading Mockingjay. I'm thinking this one will detail a full-on revolution of all or most of the districts in Panam. I'd love to see Katniss lead this revolution, as she has unknowingly become a sort of martyr for it. I'd also be happy if she ended up with Gale. I can't help it, it's the 16-year-old girl in me. 

Publisher: Scholastic Press, 2009


Thoughts on The Hunger Games movie

I'm not trying to sway anyone's opinion of this movie so if you haven't seen it yet, feel free to skip this post.

After reading and enjoying The Hunger Games I was excited to see the movie. I went over the weekend to a theater packed with teenage girls in anticipation of watching Katniss and Peeta triumph over the other tributes. I went in knowing that movies are rarely as good as the their novel counterparts, but I was still hoping it would be just as fun. In the end I did like the movie very much, but the whole thing felt a little too cheery for the dark subject matter. It reminded me of how Chris Colmbus' directed the first two Harry Potter movies. They were so upbeat and jaunty even though you knew they should be overcast with darkness. Then when I saw David Yates' direction of the last four movies I knew that's where it was supposed to be; somber and overcome with dark forces. (I know the novels got progressively darker as the series went on, but the first two movies still felt too upbeat.) Just like the early Harry Potter movies, The Hunger Games movie felt too fun when I think it should have been laced with anxiety and gloom.

Let me be clear, I didn't want more violence. Well, actually I did, but I realize they made it on the clean side to keep a PG-13 rating so the main audience of readers, namely young adults, could actually go see the movie, which I fully support. What I wanted was a greater feeling of hopelessness permeating throughout the film. I wanted to see the gauntness of the tributes, but instead they maintained their healthy weight and color throughout. I wanted to see more of the inner struggle Katniss experienced as she "preformed" for the audience, the confusion she dealt with concerning her feelings for Peeta, but instead it felt like she simply wanted to be with him. I also felt like Katniss' alliance with Rue was dealt with too quickly, so the impact of her death wasn't fully realized.

With all that said, I do want to stress that overall I did enjoy the movie. The opening scenes perfectly captured the bleak poverty of District 12. I liked how sickly twisted The Capitol and its inhabitants were portrayed. I liked that Jennifer Lawrence seemed like the perfect actress to play Katniss. (Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, not so much.) Even though some scenes were quickened, I also didn't feel like anything was really left out in terms of plot. So, while I did enjoy the movie a lot, I didn't feel like the overall tone was accurate to the novel itself.

Have you seen the movie? What did you think?
photo via IMDB


The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst

Bestselling novelist Octavia Frost has just completed her latest book—a revolutionary novel in which she has rewritten the last chapters of all her previous books, removing clues about her personal life concealed within, especially a horrific tragedy that befell her family years ago. On her way to deliver the manuscript to her editor, Octavia reads a news crawl in Times Square and learns that her rock-star son, Milo, has been arrested for murder. Though she and Milo haven’t spoken in years—an estrangement stemming from that tragic day—she drops everything to go to him. The “last chapters” of Octavia’s novel are layered throughout The Nobodies  Album—the scattered puzzle pieces to her and Milo’s dark and troubled past. Did she drive her son to murder? Did Milo murder anyone at all? And what exactly happened all those years ago? As the novel builds to a stunning reveal, Octavia must consider how this story will come to a close.  

I first heard about this book nearly a year ago over at Farm Lane Books and quickly added it to my TBR. After completing Love in the Time of Cholera I wanted something a little more fast paced and turned to this. It did the trick. I read it fairly quickly and it even kept me up fast my bedtime once. The structure of the novel was unique and I enjoyed how the plot unraveled. However, at times it felt like the mystery element of the plot fell on the back burner to Octavia's nostalgia for her past and her coping with a family tragedy, which worked out fine for the novel as a whole but since I picked it up hoping to read a mystery, I was a little let down. Aside from the suspenseful plot, Octavia's meditations on writing and fiction itself were among my favorite parts. 
I've always known that the best part of writing occurs before you've picked up a pen. When a story exists only in your mind, its potential is infinite; it's only when you start pinning words to paper that it becomes less than perfect. You have to make your choices, set your limits. Start whittling away at the cosmos, and don't stop until you've narrowed it down to a single, ordinary speck of dirt. And in the end, what you've made is not nearly as glorious as what you've thrown away.
In addition to themes of fiction and writing, the novel explores the bond between mother and son and the idea that we may not really know those who we trust. I did feel like the narrator was a little too whiny at times, which took away from my interest in the plot and my interest in her troubles. I also would have liked to see a greater parallel between Octavia's excerpts from her own novel, the book within the book, to the actual novel itself. Other than those gripes, the novel as a whole worked. I'd recommend this to anyone looking for a fun, quick read.

Publisher: Anchor, 2010


The end of winter and the start of spring, according to my iPhone

last snowfall of the year
homemade wine
sushi dinner
ryan's shed find

bucks game
homemade chicken pesto sandwhich
pedal pub
mary poppins

green chicago river
quinoa salad
patio s'mores
adam, me and billie


Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Gracia Marquez

Love in the Time of Cholera was my first Marquez novel. Prior to it I've read one of his short stories, "Eyes of the Blue Dog," and one novella, Memories of My Melancholy Whores. I enjoyed both and decided to jump into one of his novels. I chose this one based on the recommendation from Book Riot's Reading Pathways, which I talked about last week. I'm not going to lie, this novel is no cake walk. I really had to focus on every page. The plot is tedious and the story meandering. But honestly, the novel is definitely worth the effort. This love story follows Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza from their youth into their old age. After quickly falling in love as teenagers, Florentino and Fermina take two very seperate paths; she weds a doctor at the age of twenty-one, he goes on to have 622 affairs, in attempts to heal his broken heart. Fifty-one years, nine months and four days after they had seen each other last, Florentino finds her again to express his never ending love to her. (Not a spoiler I promise - this happens in the first fifty pages.)
To him she seemed so beautiful, so seductive, so different from ordinary people, that he could not understand why no one was as disturbed as he by the clicking of her heels on the paving stones, why no one else's heart was wild with the breeze stirred by the sighs of her veils, why everyone did not go mad with the movements of her braid, the flight of her hands, the gold of her laughter. He had not missed a single one of her gestures, not one of the indications of her character, but he did not dare approach her for fear of destroying the spell.
There is so much to examine throughout this novel. It explores a myriad of human emotions. It's a novel about love, loss, sex, passion, hope, and obsession. Although the chapters go on forever, there is careful attention to detail that I really enjoyed. This isn't your mushy-gushy love story, not even close. Though there are a large handful of steamy sex descriptions. When I say steamy I am talking hot, you guys, sizzling hot. But they aren't overdone, nor are they crude. Sex is depicted as a natural human desire, almost a necessity of life. It's just as beautiful as it is gratifying. Of course cholera is used as a metaphor for love throughout; the idea of love as a sickness and it's ability to distroy your body, inside and out, changing you forever. But it's more than just a love story between Fermina and Florentino. It's about the imperfectness of human nature, the complicated nature of human emotions, and the emotion of love itself.

As I mentioned earlier, this novel takes patience. Near the last third of the novel I found myself craving a resolution, some kind of end to this story of unrequited love. It seemed to go on and on and on. Then I realized maybe this is the beauty of the novel. Just like Florentino Ariza I wanted something to happen. Like Florentino, my patience began to wain. Once I thought about the idea that the emotions I experienced while reading this book mirrored the same emotions of the characters within the book, I realized the magnificence of it. It also turns out that through this tedium I really got a chance to get to know the characters and the places as they quietly unfolded.

I know that Marquez is known for his magical realism, but there were only a few instances in this novel where I noticed it. There was a scene involving a parrot in the beginning (one of my favorite scenes in the whole novel), and a scene on a boat near the end, but asides from that there weren't other instances that really stood out. Or maybe Marquez is so good at weaving the magical with the real, that I didn't even think twice about it. I believe magical realism is more prevalent in One Hundred Years of Solitude, which will be my next Marquez.

Publisher: Penguin Books, 1985


Top Ten Novels Set in New York City

New York City is, for me, one of the best cities for the setting of a book, probably because the city itself is so alive and captivating. I know Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn well enough to be able to imagine exactly where a scene of a book is taking place, which definitely adds to the fun. For this week's top ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, I decided to list my favorite books set in the glorious city that never sleeps.

1. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer: This novel has been getting a lot of attention lately because of it's movie adaption (that I still haven't seen - I'll wait until it comes to DVD because I don't like to cry in public). But the book itself is fascinating and a true testament to the beautiful peculiarities that occupy Manhattan. (2005)
2. The Brooklyn Follies, Paul Auster: There is such a strong sense of place in this novel. Brooklyn has long been known for the possibility of second chances since immigrants began flocking to New York in the late 1800's. It seems that this is a timeless curiosity, as Auster implies the borough still has this special hold on it's inhabitants. (2005)

3. The History of Love, Nicole Krauss: Not only is this a beautifully written book (If you liked Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close you are sure to like this one) but the story itself is stunning both in its narrative structure and its message. (2005)

4. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton: There is something about the old New York of Edith Wharton's time that feels so romantic and exciting. (1920)

5. The Thieves of Manhattan, Adam Langer: A smart and fun mystery revolving around a literary hoax, it only makes sense that the novel takes place in the publishing capitol of the world. (2010)

6. Falling Man, Don DeLillo: A novel that follows two narratives both linked by 9/11 and the image of the falling man. (2007)

7. The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster: Paul Auster's signature work, the book is a set of three, loosely-interconnected novels that each take place in New York City: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room. (1987)

8. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath: Ester Greenwood gains an internship at New York magazine and descends into a mental breakdown; reader's aren't watching a girl's decent into insanity from the outside, but rather following her through it. (1963)

9. Let the great World Spin, Colum McCann: A novel that explores pain, loveliness, mystery, and promise of New York City in the 1970s. (2009)

10. Washington Square, Henry James Catherine Sloper is an average girl with average looks who just inherited her mother's estate. Morris Townsend is a young man who has spent all of his fortune on travel and frivolities. As the title implies, the novel takes place in old New York, a place that "appears to many persons the most delectable." (1880)


Sugar In My Bowl by Erica Jong

I need a little sugar in my bowl,
I need a little hot dog, on my roll
I can stand a bit of lovin', oh so bad,
I feel so funny, I feel so sad
-Bessie Smith

Here is the thing about a collection of essays, I know not every piece in the book is going to be stellar. Some will be mediocre, a few might be flat out bad, but the hope is that there will be enough good ones to hold the reader's interest. I've got to say Sugar in My Bowl did not deliver enough essays to keep me very interested. I'll admit, about halfway through the book I began to skim and even skip essays that didn't grab my interest in the first couple of pages. I decided life is too short to read vanilla. I should mention that this collection also included short stories, one graphic novel and a trialogue. Some of these pieces of fiction resembled erotica rather than the real women and real sex I was told I'd be reading about. These bits really didn't do it for me. Compared to the essays they felt, surprise surprise, less authentic and somewhat campy.

The lack of diversity was also disappointing. When "real women" talk about "real sex" I want variety. However, each story related was told from the viewpoint of a straight woman. The focus of each story was heterosexual sex. It would have been nice to have a bisexual, lesbian, or transgender viewpoint in an essay or two. Let's be real, this is the 21st century and diversity keeps it interesting. There were two bisexual women who wrote stories for the collection, but their stories didn't reflect their bisexual viewpoint and instead focused on male and female relationships. If I hadn't googled the contributors, I would have never known. Moreover, there was very little diversity in terms of race and ethnicity of authors.

With all that said, I do want to highlight the portions of the book I did enjoy. My favorite piece is entitled "The Diddler" by J.A.K. Andres, in which she discusses her young daughter's tenancy to, well, diddle herself. It's fresh, well-written, and laugh-out-loud funny. I also enjoyed "Cramming It All In: A Satire" by Susan Kingsloving and "My First Time, Twice" by Ariel Levy. I did liked that the general concept of the book is unique to the publishing world and while there were bits worth reading, as a whole this book left me uninspired.

Publisher: Ecco Press, 2011


Book Riot's Reading Pathways

Yesterday in my review of Sula I linked to a Toni Morrison "Reading Pathway" on Book Riot and I wanted to talk more about those. Of all the fun and interesting things posted on Book Riot, Reading Pathways are my favorite. As a reader there are often prolific authors who I'd like to get acquainted with, but I don't know where to start. Often beginning with the earliest works and moving forward isn't the best route to take. Enter Reading Pathways, in which a reader who is very familiar with a certain author's work suggests a series of three books to read in succession to best introduce a new reader to said author's oeuvre.

I myself am two-thirds of my way though the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Reading Pathway and have found it quite helpful. I've always been intimidated by Marquez, so the pathway makes me feel more confident about tackling his works. I started with Memories of My Melancholy Whores, moved to Love In The Time of Cholera (which I completed yesterday) and will tackle 100 Years of Solitude Next.  If you're looking to conquer a new-to-you author, I really can't recommend reading pathways enough. 

There are a wide variety of authors represented, including but not limited to Zadie SmithMargaret AtwoodJonathan TrooperJane AustenJohn Irving, and Haruki Murakami. You can pursue the ever evolving list of authors here. Let me know if you try one! 


Sula by Toni Morrison

Sula never competed; she simply helped other define themselves.

It's been awhile since I've read a Morrison novel. In college I was required to read The Bluest Eye and Beloved for two different classes and while I liked them both a lot, I haven't picked anything else of hers up until now. It only took twenty pages or for me to remember how fantastic Toni Morrison really is. Maybe because Sula was the first Morrison novel I've read on my own, or maybe because the first two were for class and those sometimes go under appreciated, but I had a tiny Toni Morrison awakening. She is really amazing. At times her prose is like poetry and there are so many layers woven throughout the novel its underlying meaning is something you'll think about long after finishing it.

Sula is the story of two women and the forces that bring them together and later break them apart. On the surface Sula and Nel are juxtapositions of one another; Sula is wild and unconventional (with an ironic last name of Peace), while Nel is virtuous and restrained. However, as the story progresses these roles don't seem so clearly defined. Distinctions of character and morality itself are blurred over time, changing shape to suggest nothing is ever set in stone and things aren't always what they appear. The theme of ambiguity is examined throughout the novel through a number of different characters. Sula also explores the complexities of what it means to be a black women in America. It is a study of female friendships, especially black female friendships; their evolution and growth, what their absence implies, and just how important they are in terms of providing a sense of safeness and relief.
So when they met... they felt the ease and comfort in old friends. Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to the them, they had set about creating something else to be.
In Sula, we see that the relationships between women are essential to achieving a sense of completeness in life; Morrison implies sharing feelings and emotions among women works to awaken and define oneself. Moreover, Morrison continually criticizes male/female relationships throughout the novel, suggesting men cannot be a friend or a "comrade," at least to a woman. For Sula and Nel being black and female created a barrier, limiting them further in life but, at the same time, bringing them together to forge their own path.

I look forward to reading more Morrison. She isn't the easiest writer to read, but she's definitely worth the effort. Next on my wishlist is Song of Solomon. If you haven't read anything of hers, I'd like to direct you to Book Riot's Toni Morrison reading pathway

Publisher: Penguin Group, 1982


I'd buy these books based on cover art alone.

I'm not going to lie, sometimes I judge a book by its cover. At least at first. Great cover art can really draw me in and pique my interest in a novel. Below is a selection of my favorite cover art from books I'd like to own.

Spring, Heat, Rains: A South Indian Diary by Daivd Shulman / Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

The Snobs by Muriel Spark / Swerve by John Estes

The Storm: A Novel by Margriet de Moor / Martha and Hanwell by Zadie Smith

The Revolution of Little Girls by Blanche McCrary Boyd / The Craftsman by Richard Sennett

The Short Novels of John Steinbeck / Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.


February Reading

February in Wisconsin is usually brutal. It's typically the coldest month of the year and filled with snow storms. This year, however, it felt more like early spring. We don't have any snow on the ground and temperatures have been the in 40's consistently. It's kind of a disappointment because I do enjoy a snow-filled winter, but I am looking forward to spring.

Books read this month: 6

I started this month off with a review of Stephen King's 11/22/63 (AH-mazing book you guys) and then read Domestic Violets which was quite funny, satirizing corporate America and highlighting the oddities of modern life. From there I turned to something completely different; Night by Elie Wiesel. It is a first person account of Wiesel's experiences in WWII concentration camps. This is a book I won't soon forget. Following Night, I picked up the much advertised debut novel The Snow Child and was pleasantly surprised. It turned out to be a lovely, whimsical read that was a perfect choice for the month of February. I also read a selection for the Smooth Criminals reading challenge - The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain. I really didn't know what to expect because I'm still pretty new to the noir genre. In the end it was a good time all around; thrilling and well-paced, with just enough violence to keep it interesting. After Postman I gave in to reading peer pressure and finally picked up The Hunger Games and you know what? I liked it quite a bit. Super fun and entertaining. (Yes I will be seeing the movie as well.) Lastly, I revisited the works of Toni Morrison with Sula. I haven't read Morrison since college and hot damn is she stellar. I almost forgot. (review coming soon)

At the very end of the month I started a collection of essays entitled Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write about Real Sex, which so far is just kind of meh. Since I usually read essays along with a novel so I cant alternate when I get tired of the essays I also began Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera which is beautiful written, though a bit tedious, and quite good so far. I plan on tackling 100 Years of Solitude this year and I was told that reading Memories of My Melancholy Whores (I did in 2010) and then Love in the Time of Cholera before 100 Years was a good path to take.

There aren't any new releases in March that I am particularly excited about, which is kind of good because I don't need to buy any more books right now.
image via Nose in a Book