Coraline, Neil Gaiman

I was browsing in a bookstore the other day, and I realized the books are not unlike wine, at least when you’re shopping for them. You go into a store, completely full of books, and how can you know what you really want to read? Covers can be misleading. The volume makes it too overwhelming to look in every book. So, you go with what you know. You choose books that have been recommended to you, or that you’ve heard about, or whose authors you’ve read before.

And so it was with Coraline. I knew it would be good. In fact, I wondered why I had waited until now to read it. I snapped it up (along with a travel guide to Mexico). And it was good. It was wonderful.

When I read Neil Gaiman, I’m reminded that anything is possible in a story. Your characters can do anything, learn anything, be anything. Your villains can be as awful as you want them to be. The only limit is your imagination. Neil Gaiman makes me want to write.

If the mice tell you not to go through the door, you should probably listen.

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Internet is a wonderful place.

I was listening to NPR one day and they were talking about the books of 2004. The person being interviewed mentioned this book that sounded really interesting to me, but of course, I promptly forgot the title and author. I mentioned this at a discussion forum I frequent, described what I could vaguely remember about the plot, and said I thought the title started with an “S”.

I was expecting replies along the lines of “starts with an S. Oh sure. I know exactly what that is.” But instead, another member of the discussion forum e-mailed me to not only give me the name of the book and the author, but also to tell me that she works for the publisher and could send me a copy. The book arrived in my mailbox soon after.

The book was written in Spanish and was translated by Lucia Graves. I sometimes feel a little frustrated when I read translations, because I feel like I’m missing something: that poetic element of crafting words that goes beyond just telling the story. I never felt that with this book. In fact, the artful phrasing painted vibrant pictures that I wouldn’t have thought possible with translated text. This was one of the rare books I’ve read in translation that never pulled me out of the story because of language.

The story was fanciful, with twists and turns at every page. I would almost call it great fun to read, except that it also had an element of sadness to it. It had a poignant historical context that was an almost abrasive justaposition to the larger-than-life plot. And that only made the book more interesting.

One reason I really like reading non-American authors is that I get a peek into the history and culture of other countries that I would otherwise never know.

The other thing about this book is that I felt like I was almost reading about other characters from long ago. I recognized Pip and Estella from Great Expectations and the villian could have stepped right out of the pages of Dickens or Poe. At times the characters are too one-dimensional, but it’s because they serve the purpose of the story. They are symbols more than people, guideposts in the journey.

And despite the outlandish heights to which the plot aspired, it ultimately stayed grounded by its honesty about human nature.

“Sometimes we think people are like lottery tickets, that they’re there to make our most absurd dreams come true.”

The story was in one sense about love, but in another sense, it was about books. And about what it means to commit words to paper.

“… a story is a letter that the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise.”

How many times have I started to write, only to end up with something completely different at the end that I never would have guessed and realized that it’s true?

At the heart of the novel is the cemetery of lost books, where books that have been forgotten are preserved forever. That on its own is a wonderful and fanciful idea, and it’s from this that the rest of the story grows.

Confessions of an Ex-Girlfriend, Lynda Curnyn

I talked about this book in my journal. (Er, don’t click the link if you don’t want to be spoiled on the ending. If it’s possible to be spoiled on a chicklit ending.)

This book was both better and worse than a lot of chicklit out there. The first act (aka “protagonist wallows in her troubles”) was spot on. The second act (“the protagonist decides to take action”) was also painfully realistic in that she took stock of herself, realized she had to do something, then realized she had no idea what to do. But the third act (“everything turns out OK in the end”) was even more pat and make-believe than usual. The amazon reviews say things like “I had no idea how it was going to end!” and it’s obvious that the author thinks she’s going for a less-than-typical chicklit ending. It was a chicklit ending all right, with extra helpings of “let me hand you everything you ever wanted, even though he didn’t even know what that was”.

Life just isn’t that easy. And it doesn’t have endings anyway. Life is a set of middles.

The Gathering Dark, Christopher Golden

This is the latest book in the Shadow Saga series. (The first was Of Saints and Shadows; this is the fourth.

I read the first three several years ago, so the details were a little hazy when I came back to it. I would definitely recommend reading in order. It’s a vampire story, but with a twist. It’s not your standard evil vampires being killed with stakes kind of story. It’s more three-dimensional and explores shades of gray, and it throws in a historical angle that’s pretty cool.

This book had some fun surprises, with lots of dark, creepy stuff that Golden is so fond of.

Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris

This was a reread. I think this is my favorite book of his. The thing I love about reading him is that he’ll be telling a perfectly normal (for him anyway) story, and out of nowhere jumps this turn of phrase or insight that is just so telling. Or hilarious. Or amazingly sad. I really should get his books on audiotape if he reads them himself. I saw him a few years back and he just has a way of telling his stories. He can be uneven, but I really do eny the way he is able to use language to turn agonizing moments into joy.