Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Books that Travel

In the course of the last three years, many a book has gone traveling with me. And they in turn, were made into book reviews to help defray the costs of my trips. Ah, the circle of life!
Here, in no particular order, are some of the tales that have traveled with me:
BOOK: Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo
AUTHOR: Ntzoke Shange
It begins at Christmas. Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo carome around the house, partaking in a family tradition that brims with the tenderness and intimacy that only their Mama can provide. Pages fly with passages on love, recipes, herbal remedies and dreams. At the hub of which is Indigo, the youngest, whose passion drives the novel ever forward.
This is a story of three sisters coming into their own in a world that is, all too often, far too real. Each with their own gift to share. Each moved by the everyday magic that surrounds their lives. Shange creates a book that is as vivid as Sassafrass' tapestries, as fluid as Cypress' dancing body and as lyrical as Indigo's rebellious violin. The speech of her prose reads like poetry, both a spiritual journey and an almost voyueristic peek into the heart of the characters she created.
BOOK: How To Be Good
AUTHOR: Nick Hornby
Hornby enters the mind of a woman in his latest literary jaunt as he tackles the true meaning of being good. As Katie, Hornby shows that he has a good grasp of a female mind in the midst of a domestic and spiritual battle. Or that he has issues with women in general.
Katie is good person. She donates to charities. Her husband David is not. He hates people. In fact, Katie thinks she may hate David as well. And she has good reason to. But when David meets a self-styled guru and suddenly wants to be, in an almost fanatical sense, good, she cant stand him even more. Their marriage may be the center of this tale but the true account is in intangible lines that Katie has drawn between the couple.
Hornby tackles the issues of guilt, values and choices, using David’s extreme good-deeding (and Katie’s growing frustration) as his platform. It makes you think even as you silently berate, cheer for or resist the urge to slap the story’s characters.
The deadly combination of satirical wit and brutal honesty make “How to Be Good” introspective… and hilarious. Is it upsetting? Yes. Should you read it then? All the more so.
BOOK: Slapstick
AUTHOR: Kurt Vonnegut

There is, universally, nothing funnier than old people suffering in obscurity. Okay, not really. But Vonnegut certainly seems to think so in what is possibly his finest work (barring Slaughterhouse Five).
Dr Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, the last President of the United States (also King of Manhattan, the island of Green Death) tells us his tale. The country is in the midst of several civil wars. The Chinese are tremendously intelligent and minuscule. They watch from the margins while America suffers from the Albanian Flu, the Green Death and severe fluctuations in gravity. Yes, gravity. Where sometimes it is so light that all men sport unwanted erections or so heavy one must lie prone on the floor for days.
Amusing in its exploration of mankind’s fear of loneliness, Slapstick is not a comedic traipse through a protagonist’s feeble mind. Here and there Vonnegut opens secret trapdoors and hidden passageways of the very real need for humans to be accepted. The fluctuating gravity inside the human heart and soul, if you will, are tackled through Dr Swain’s disconcertingly sterile memories of his past.
Hi ho.
BOOK: Laughable Loves
AUTHOR: Milan Kundera

A collection of short stories both witty and wise.
Among the most memorable lines comes from "The Golden Apple of Eternal Desire" where the protagonist says 'An ugly woman hopes to gain something from the luster of her pretty friend; a pretty woman, for her part, hopes she will stand out more.' The two men later go on to discuss the nuances of a dalliance. From sighting to that elusive 'boarding' where contact with a woman is established.
And in "The Hitchhiking Game" comes the quote 'jealousy isn't a pleasant trait, but if it isn't overdone... there's even something touching about it."
Kundera draws out - then plays with - the paradoxes and complexities that make up a very human mind. His characters are not sketches but fully live people who inhabit their space on paper for all the world to read. His stories contain no more magic than the kind we dream of on a daily basis. His jaded look at the human condition is softened by his advocation of love in this world. This is the cynic and the dreamer in his element. The combination makes Laughable Loves a real treasure to be read over and over again.
BOOK: Neverwhere
AUTHOR: Neil Gaiman
This darkly humorous novel by the creator of The Sandman series takes you through a world where people speak to rats and subway trains house royal courts. What appears to be real is not... and all is not what it appears to be. Confused? Don't be. This is the world of London Below, a city for those who have fallen through the cracks of society - the lost, the forgotten. Now Londonite (and sometime loser) Richard Mayhew is part of it. Average man with an average life now living an entirely extraordinary adventure. The hapless Richard trips through the novel with equally engaging companions: the Lady Door, the ostentatious Marquis de Carabas and the hunter named Hunter.
Taken apart, the plot sounds common, the characters unremarkable and the outcome nearly predictable. But under Gaiman's hand its all comes out strangely... satisfying. The horrific images combined with signature dry wit makes for a page-turner. Gaiman proves his penchant for the dark and the dreadful with Neverwhere. The reader's imagination is pulled through hoops as the gloomy underworld comes to life under the author's steady hand. And through it all he manages to maintain a twisted sense of humor.
What books have had the pleasure of traveling with you?


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