July 2009
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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(7/30) Failure (Poems) Sound and the Fury by Philip Schultz.

The Truth

You can hide it like a signature
or birthmark but it’s always there
in the greasy light of your dreams,
the knots your body makes at night,
the sad innuendos of your eyes,
whispering insidious asides in every
room you cannot remain inside.  It’s
there in the unquiet ideas that drag and
plead one lonely argument at a time,
and those who own a little are contrite
and fearful of those who own too much,
but owning none takes up your whole life.
It cannot be replaced with a house or car,
a husband or wife, but can be ignored,
denied, and betrayed, until the last day,
when you pass yourself on the street
and recognize the agreeable life you
were afraid to lead, and turn away.

[Need I say more?][comment on this book review]


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(7/19) Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist.

I saw the film based on this book a few months ago and was absolutely blown away by it. After reading my review, several people wrote to tell me that the book the film was based on, by John Ajvide Lindqvist, was a must-read — that it was even darker than the film and provided a lot more insight into both the main characters.

At first, I wasn’t really sure I wanted to read it. I dithered a bit because Let the Right One In (the movie) is one of the most completely perfect things I have ever seen on screen, and the idea of trying to add something more to the story that was told there — I just didn’t think I needed to. Or wanted to. Besides, what if instead of adding to it, it just ended up taking away? That would suck.

But, when I needed a long book for a long weekend in early July, I picked up a copy and decided to give it a shot. As it turns out, everybody was right — the novel is great, although in a very different way from the film. (For a plot description, by the way, see the movie review.) It’s definitely darker — especially the parts that involve Eli and her “handler,” a relationship far more sexual in the book than it was in the film. And there is also more violence in general, bloodier and more brutal than the similar scenes in the movie (which is not terribly graphic, actually, something I found refreshing).

Though I found the novel a bit draggy in a few places (it needed to be about 100 pages shorter, for one thing), I absolutely loved the fact it really let me  get to know Oskar.  The story is told from Oskar’s perspective, and his feelings about himself and, eventually, Eli, are among the most moving things I have ever read, especially when it comes to stories driven by children.  This passage towards the end really summed it up for me:

For a few seconds, Oskar saw through Eli’s eyes.  And what he saw was himself.  Only much better, more handsome, stronger than what he thought of himself.  Seen with love.

For a few seconds.

It may not be the most original concept — that being loved boosts your self-esteem.  But from a kid?  From a kid, it got to me.  Oskar is picked on, bullied, and ignored, and he suffers from humiliating incontinence and unbearable shame for no good reason.  Watching him unfold after years of staying as curled up as possible — it is a beautiful thing.

Brilliant. Both the book and the movie. Utterly brilliant. And if you’re finally intrigued enough to want to experience this story, I definitely recommend that you watch the film before you read the book. I think if you do it the other way, you’ll have a hard time watching the movie without noticing what’s missing, and you shouldn’t be thinking about that. Instead, appreciate the film for its own singular awesomeness, and then read the book to extend the experience. Highly, HIGHLY recommended. [comment on this book review]


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(7/6) Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart.

This short fantasy novel, recommended to me by a book lovin’ (and sellin’!) friend, is set in a fictitious Ancient China somewhere around the seventh century or so. As the story opens, we are introduced to our narrator, a big lumbering oaf named Lu Yu, called “Number Ten Ox” by his friends. In Ox’s village, the yearly silkworm spinning has just begun, an elaborate procedure that brings the entire village together in work and celebration. But instead of the usual bounty of silk everyone has come to expect, all the silkworms have begun to get sick and die. That’s tragedy enough for a village that depends on the selling of that silk to keep afloat, but things quickly go from crap to shite when, one by one, all the village children also begin to fall ill.

Desperate to find a cure, the villagers send Ox to Peking to try to find a wise man to help. Unfortunately, though the village scraped together all the money they had for this task, it’s still not enough for the experts of Peking. One by one, they laugh Ox’s offer of a few coins off, slamming their doors in his face. Ox is about to give up when he comes across Master Li, a drunken genius with a much-touted “slight flaw in his character.” Master Li agrees to return to the village with Ox, and after studying the situation for a while, figures out both the cause and the solution to the village’s problem. Unfortunately, the solution involves finding the Great Root of Power, which Li believes is the key to a cure for the children, and finding the Great Root will be no easy feat. To that end, Master Li and Ox set out on a series of searches for the Root, traveling from one side of the country to the other, and encountering a vivid and wild collection of gods, monsters, ghosts, wise men, villains, and, for extra kicks, the most expensive woman in the world.

While at first this novel seemed a bit disjointed, like the diseased-children storyline was just a clumsy excuse to spin a series of separate adventure yarns, it became clear by the end that there was actually a fairly elaborate underlying framework to the whole thing — one based on an ancient legend and a children’s rhyme. Even better, though, this novel is simply a blast to read. It’s packed with truly magical descriptions of “an ancient China that never was,” a delightful cast of characters, and loads of satisfying puzzles, relationships, and resolutions. On the surface, Bridge of Birds seems like a straight comic adventure/fantasy story. But the more you read, the more you begin to realize it is also a very poignant tale filled with emotion and warmth. I had a really hard time putting this book down once I started it, and I absolutely fell head-over-heels with both Master Li, the perfect flawed hero for a story like this one, and his lovable and endlessly faithful foil, Number Ten Ox. The only thing that kept me from being completely miserable when it was over was the knowledge that it’s the first in a series. Can’t wait to read Number Two Book about Number Ten Ox! (And hey, Steve, thanks for recommending this one — I really enjoyed it and you totally rule!) [comment on this book review]


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