Wednesday, 9 March 2011

[029] The Dogs of Babel - Carolyn Parkhurst

The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

This exuberantly praised bestseller-one of the year's most admired and enjoyed fiction debuts--tells the story of a man's quest to solve the mystery of his wife's death with the help of the only witness: their dog, Lorelei. Written with a quiet elegance and a profound knowledge of love's hidden places, The Dogs of Babel is a work of astonishing and lasting power--a story of marriage, survival, and devotion that lies too deep for words.

Why I Picked It Up:

It was a good size for how much I thought I would read that week and when I read the back, I was super confused and thus, intrigued. 

What I Think:

One of the things I find most interesting about the back cover of The Dogs of Babel is that it really gives you absolutely no idea of what you're getting yourself into. You know the main character's wife has died and the dog witnessed it. That's it. It's not much to base a plot on, if that's all you have. Also, that last little bit, the story of "marriage, survival and devotion that lies too deep for words" seems out of place with the beginning of the paragraph. Is this a mystery? Is it a love story? Where does the dog fit in? All of these questions sprung to mind when I first read that back cover and thus, I picked up the book. So I suppose the back cover did its job.

The basic plot of the novel is this: A linguistics professor is called home from work one day as his wife was found dead in their backyard, seemingly from a fall from their apple tree. The reason she was found so quickly was because the couple's dog, Lorelei, had managed to get the neighbor's attention. Everything seems to point to it being an accident, despite Paul (our hero) knowing that there was no reason Lexy (his wife) would ever climb that tree.

Grieving, Paul turns to the only thing that remains: their dog, Lorelei. As a linguistics professor, he is aware of the strange history of talking dogs. As Lorelei is the only witness to Lexy's death, he decides to take a sabbatical in order to teach Lorelei to talk. Obviously, his friends think that he's starting to lose it but he is determined to solve the mystery of Lexy's death.

One of the most interesting things about the novel is the way that it's written. Although it's in first person (cringe), there's a very stream-of-conciousness flow that's a delight to read. The way the chapters are broken up, the reader weaves in and out of reminiscences of Paul's, switching from a session with Lorelei to a memory of Lexy. Through these flashbacks, Paul and Lexy's entire history is told, from the moment they met at a garage sale to the last day before she died. Although we start off by knowing that Lexy is dead, we engage with her character (through Paul) for almost the entire novel.

The book is an interesting study in grief, especially as Paul falls deeper and deeper into his studies of dogs. Admittedly, though, there are a few plot twists in that section of the novel that seem a little bit much. How many secret dog-talking groups do you honestly think exist in the world? But it's all okay because the real story is Paul's history with Lexy and, indeed, Paul's bond with Lorelei.

The only problem I had with this book (and it's a big one) is the fact that, honestly, I couldn't stand Lexy. In my opinion, she is the definition of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She rolls into Paul's life and sends him on this whirlwind journey of self-confidence, while being bizarre and quirky at the same time. She makes masks for a living. She has random bursts of anger. Reading her character should make one seriously worry about her mental health. While I could see why she would be a fantasy to a man like Paul, she never seemed like a real person to me. She was an ideal, a kind of character that no real woman would ever really be. That kind of ruined the book for me.

Interestingly, just as I started writing this review, it was announced that Steve Carell is to play Paul in an upcoming movie adaptation. I don't know how I feel about a movie of this coming out. Two hours of watching Lexy on a big screen? No thanks. I also don't really envision Paul much like Steve Carell but I suppose we'll just see how it plays out.

It's a quick read and it's interesting. I really did want to find out what really happened on the day Lexy died. The ending is rather abrupt and kind of made me dislike Lexy even more (especially considering this "devotion that lies too deep for words" nonsense) but I can honestly say that it was a page-turner. Just one that left a bad taste in my mouth.

Friday, 4 March 2011

A Very Short Hiatus

I find it unfortunate to admit that my computer is currently being repaired by the wondrous geniuses at the Ginza Apple store. I will be without my laptop--and thus, my reviews--for the next five to seven days.

The good news, however, is that I have already read two books in this unexpected computer drought and have a feeling I will read many, many more in the coming days. Look forward to some YA, a couple of books loaned to me by well-meaning friends, and, best of all, another Catherine Coulter!

See you soon, bookworms!

Thursday, 3 March 2011

[028] Nocturnes - Kazuo Ishiguro

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

In Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro explores the ideas of love, music and the passing of time. From the piazzas of Italy to the 'hush-hush floor' of an exclusive Hollywood hotel, the characters we encounter range from young dreamers to cafe musicians to faded stars, all of them at some moment of reckoning. 

Gentle, intimate and witty, this quintet is marked by a haunting theme: the struggle to keep alive a sense of life's romance, even as one gets older, relationships flounder and youthful hope recedes. 

Why I Picked It Up:

I had really enjoyed Never Let Me Go and wanted to read more of Ishiguro's work.

What I Think:

Nocturnes is a series of short stories that revolves around music, nightfall and the changes love goes through over passage of time. Ishiguro wrote all of them to go together, a sort of musical piece in movements, with reappearing themes, characters and locations. Although they are all separate short stories, it's easy to notice the connection between them. 

The first (and best, in my opinion) story, Crooner, tells the story of a young piazza musician in Italy meeting one of his idols from childhood and performing with him for the singer's wife. The mood, the feeling, the melancholy romance really set the tone for the coming stories and establish an atmosphere of love and regret that will haunt all of the coming stories.

Crooner is followed by Come Rain or Come Shine, the story of a man who has lived abroad since college teaching English. He returns to his native England for a vacation, staying with a couple, his old friends from college. While most of the story is a kind of strange physical comedy with him overreacting while alone in their home, the strange sense of the weariness that comes from the strain of a relationship over time really culminates in the last few paragraphs. If you make it that far.

Next is Malvern Hills, the story of a failing young musician that goes to stay with his sister and her husband in their rural town for the summer, to work on his music and help in their cafe. While there, he meets a travelling Swiss couple who he almost immediately dislikes but after a few more encounters in the hills, their relationship changes into a sort of camaraderie. It isn't until their last meeting that he realizes how fragile relationships like that can be.

Nocturne, the titular story, actually continues a thread (well, a character) from the first story, Crooner. Due to a twisted sense of logic, a saxophonist agrees to plastic surgery and has to hide out in a hotel while he heals. He ends up becoming sort of friends with his neighbor, an aging Paris Hilton-type. Despite a few evenings of true bonding, however, our narrator is forced to confront that he never will completely respect her.

Last is Cellists, a return to our Italian piazzas and the story of a young man with ambition and an aging woman with a lot of talent and a bit of a mysterious air about her. Told from the point of view of a man who used to work with the young man once, we see the sad mistake of waiting too long to make your own miracle happen.

One interesting stylistic choice Ishiguro has made in these stories is to use narrators who are both unreliable and not the main focus of the story at all. Perhaps they reveal more about themselves than they realize in their monologues but the narrator is always telling someone else's story, whether they realize it or not. This distance from characters adds to the atmosphere, making the stories both harder to interpret and hazier than his other works.

Each story contains an element of the musical, usually pertaining to a character's wasted potential. A musician who is too afraid to improve, a saxophonist who's talent is overshadowed by his looks and age, a performing couple who fear they are selling out their heritage. The music they play or associate with themselves becomes a symbol of their ideal selves that they are, unfortunately, never going to live up to. 

To be honest, while I found the stories all very interesting as I read them, I can't say that I particularly enjoyed the book. Despite my affinity for the regretful romance trope in literature, I can't say that any of these stories really struck a tone with me. I was curious what the general response was when this book first came out and I searched out some reviews. A good number said, while they might not strike you at first, they haunt you afterwards. Personally, I don't consider myself haunted.

Now, to be honest, there definitely is a certain mood the novel evokes and perhaps that feeling has stuck with me a bit. But I'm only writing this review perhaps four days after finishing the book and had to quickly remember what half of the stories were. I don't think that says much for their ethereal quality. 

Perhaps I'm just uncultured but I can't say that I particularly enjoyed Nocturnes. I do find that I am in the minority with that, though, so I will leave you to your own explorations.