Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Historian

By Elizabeth Kostova.

For my brother, P...

I tend to be intimidated by mammoth tomes. Be it my slow reading or the devotion required to see such a volume to the finish, I generally prefer novels of 200-500 pages. That said, I might have independently chosen this 704-page opus due to the controversy surrounding its quality – reviews either rave or rant, but certainly none sit on the fence. Had it not been for a promise to my brother over the holidays, (“You pick a book, and we’ll read it together!”) this queue-jumper would have been relegated back to the bookshelf within 100 pages.

Ms. Kostova’s epic Dracula-cum-Da Vinci Code novel is an update to the Bram Stoker original. Over 10 years in the making, Ms. Kostova received a sizable advance ($2 million from Time Warner), sold the rights to Hollywood, won the Hopwood Award for Novel-in-Progress, and became a New York Times No 1 bestseller during her first week in print. Surely this must be decent popular fiction?

Despite being well research, I found the novel overly detailed and more of a meandering travelogue than a vampire-hunting ghost story. Similarly, the plotline is highly predictable (owning to its faithfulness to numerous genres – adventure, historical, mystery, science fiction, thriller; oh and did I mention romance?) and filled with uncanny coincidences involving the introduction of new characters just in time to provide the principles with new information to further their quest. It is over 500-pages before Dracula shows his undead head and then as a maniacal egomaniac. Given popular culture’s present love of celebrity, again such a baddie is not completely unexpected.

In spite of these shortcomings, I was intrigued by the structure of the novel. Ms. Kostova weaves together three Dracula quests, roughly thirty years apart, through a series of letters and flashbacks within the most contemporary quest. Cunning, and undoubtedly requiring a white-board on the author’s part, this device was almost enough to keep me plowing through the pages. Almost.

Given these plot failings; it is hard to recommend this tome. After three months plodding through this novel, I strong endorse waiting for the movie! (And as everyone knows, I prefer to read the book.)

Next Up:
While on the road in Amsterdam, I recently found myself fiction-less. Generally, I don’t travel with novels in tow; I’m out experiencing the world, not reading about it. But, after galavanting all day, the tootsies, and camera, needed a brake. I was given Jodi Picoult’s Keeping Faith by the hotel proprietor and offer it for your consideration.

Thursday, May 31, 2007


The good news: I've finally finished The Historian!

The bad news: I've been traveling (Holland and Scotland) for the past few weeks and haven't had a chance to properly review this, uh um, novel. Hoping to attempt to find something positive to say about the 704 page beast this evening.

In the meantime, I was given Jodi Picoult's Keeping Faith while on the road in Amsterdam and am just about finished with this one too!

Monday, February 26, 2007

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things

by Jon McGregor

Chance encounters…
Friendly punters…

Jon McGregor’s debut come to me through just that - a chance encounter while standing in a very long queue for tickets (for friends) at the 2006 Edinburgh International Book Festival. After saving each other’s places through coffee and loo runs, we started chatting about the best books people had read this past year. As a busy PhD student, whose only contact with fiction was the type I’m writing for my thesis, I was anxious to get some recommendations. The chap in front of me was one of the directors for the Edinburgh International Film Festival. He suggested quite a few of the novels that already inhabit my bookcase before arriving (quite literally – he found it on the shelf and brought it over) at McGregor’s offering. Victorious with the tickets, I purchased the novel on my way out.

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things documents the ordinary, everyday lives of the nameless souls on a nameless city street on a sultry, final day of summer. At first glance, such a topic seems a bit ‘unremarkable.’ However, the novel is filled with dramatic tension due to the way it was crafted. McGregor tells his story by alternating street snapshots with the linear story of just one of these people three years later who is at a turning point in her own life.

At first, I found the novel very challenging to read. Chapters tend to be cliché filled; speech devoid of spacing and punctuation. Once I settled into McGregor’s rhythm, the novel became almost cinematic – a series of flashbacks interspersed in one’s own life story. I wondered if this actually wasn’t a very cleverly crafted screenplay (a la American Beauty) rather than a debut novel.

During interviews, McGregor explains he was interested in the concepts of community and transience. His use of anonymity quickly drew me into the story - this is the street I live on; the characters are people I know. Being from nowhere in particular these days, I quickly identified with his critique of our evolving, supersonic-paced, global society and the lack of connections most people have. One character explains to his daughter, “There are remarkable things all the time, right in front of us, but our eyes have like the clouds over the sun and our lives are paler and poorer if we do not see them for what they are.” (pg 239). McGregor, and I, seem to be pondering if most people experience the small miracles all around them – a sunny afternoon, the rustle of wind through trees, fine details on buildings, facial expressions; the quality not quantity of a life well lived.

At 26, McGregor truly is an “archaeologist of the present.” (pg 153). He challenges the reader both in his avante guard style and layered subject. Given a crossroad in life, what does one do when faced with the unthinkable? More importantly, why does one make the choices they make?

Honestly, although initially being a chore, this novel is actually a quick little read. It packs its punch once the covers are closed. I’ve had it finished for over two weeks now. But, it left me looking at my response to the issues McGregor raises. After a recent realignment in my own life, I would challenge the wider world to take off your wristwatch, breath deeply, and smell the roses. With over 6.7 billion people on this tiny planet, might a rich life have more impact that an over scheduled one?

Next up:
While I was visiting my family this past holiday season, my youngest brother, P, said he was out of novels. So, while I at the bookshop I made him a promise, “You pick a book, and we’ll read it together!” Accordingly, the next novel is of his choosing - The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Extra, extra, read all about it...

I'm happy to report, I'm back on track with the Reading Group books. If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is turning into a well-observed study of everyday existence. More on that in a few days!

The real focus of this quickie is a rather interesting initiative I encountered over weekend: One Book-One Edinburgh . In October 2004, Edinburgh petitioned, and was granted, UNESCO 'City of Literature' status in honor of its deeply rooted traditions of literacy and literature. We became the first ever 'City of Literature' and part of a new drive by UNESCO to promote artistically, as well as historically, important landmarks for all of human history. Since then, there have been a variety of improvements (including the creation of a Scottish Storytelling Centre) and all sorts of events to continue this tradition.

The latest, aims to get Edinburghers reading the same book, Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped this month. In addition to reissuing the novel (the original version, a graphic novel version, and a children's version), events ranging from readings to tours of Stevenson's inspirational locations are planned.

Please join me with this last minute addition to the list!

For more information about anything related to the 'City of Literature,' and the One Book-One Edinburgh project, check out:

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Gloaming

Lately, I've found it hard to find any time to myself... and when it is quiet, I seem to be luminescently challenged.

Dear Nephew Donovan doesn't like the dark, and we have been treated to alot of dark lately courtesy Ol' Man Winter. Very quickly we discovered the only way to calm this little guy down was by giving him a 'coal miner' flashlight. Trouble is, he wouldn't give it back. =(

Never fear, the lights are back on, and I have returned to Edinburgh! Yippee! Normal book reviewing shall resume shortly.