Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Boy Detective Fails

I finally finished Boy Detective Fails, by Chicago writer Joe Meno. I write "finally" because it seemed to take a long time for a book that occasionally has one sentence chapters. It begins with Chapter 31, letting you know right from the get-go that you're in for some po-mo lit (that's if you didn't notice the "note to the astute reader" on the copywrite page: It may be of interest to you to note, for purposes of decoding the hidden story placed within these pages, that A=N.)

I love the heavily footnoted and hidden-notes-in-the-copywrite pages of, for example, Dave Eggers' Heartbreaking Work of Incredible Genius, or, as the "astute reader" knows, the po-mo stylins' of Pessl's 2006 Special Topics in Calamity Physics, so it was with a bounce in my step that I set off for Boy Detective Fails, which comes complete with a decoder ring in the back, for solving mysteries.

An absolute exercise in the definition of postmodern literature, the short novel deals with existential issues of our times - you know, that things make little sense, that often there are no reasons for the things that happen, that bad things happen to good people (see In the Image, by Dara Horn, for a more in depth analysis), that there really are no easy answers. This is literally spelled out several times throughout the book - for example, in a conversation with a therapist, the doctor says, "The facts. The truth. Life has very little to do with either."

As a boy, the Boy Detective (as he is referred to throughout the book) solved mysteries with his sister and a friend, and, tableau-style, the reader is introduced to this past in the beginning of the book. The Boy Detective and his friends solve cases, accompanied by titles like "Boy Detective Solves Fatal Orphanage Arson." Like the Scooby Doo gang, they follow the clues to their logical conclusion. Later on, the Boy Detective's sister kills herself, and the boy detective attempts to understand what led her to that deed. Naturally, that mystery is less easy to comprehend. The Boy Detective, no longer either boy or detective, is unable to find peace and proceed to the next stage of his life until he embraces mystery and chaos.

I found the distance of the main character quite difficult to deal with, despite his pains and his emotional state, he's difficult to relate to, and frequently I found myself wondering if he was even an actual character at all. Shape poetry, variation in font, text, and style are capably managed and really exciting and interesting, but personally I hope for more emotional resonance, which is frequently lacking in the postmodern expression.

Here's an excerpt.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Best of 2006?

Salon is doing a week of the best books of 2006 - starting today with blurbs from a bunch of writers. I haven't heard of most of the books listed, and, frankly, it reads like a laundry list of authors trying to impress each other with their obscure references. The Road by Cormac McCarthy is mentioned several times. Jennifer Weiner of In Her Shoes writes the following:

For me, 2006 marked the lamentable triumph of style over substance. Designated PYT Marisha Pessl's much-hyped debut came tap-dancing in, all bells and whistles (and footnotes, and illustrations). There may have been a strong brew underneath, but I couldn't get through the froth. [...]

I'll pick two winners: Ken Kalfus' "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country," in which a pair of narcissistic New Yorkers have their divorce interrupted by 9/11. Hilarity ensues. And for those who crave a big, sprawling, old-fashioned, romantic tale over the too-cool-for-school po-mo tricks of perspective or punctuation, Stephen King's "Lisey's Story" was a completely ravishing meditation on the thin skin between reality and nightmare, and the mysteries of writing, and of marriage.

Ooo - SNAP! So, she didn't like Special Topics in Calamity Physics! I thought that was rather rich, considering that the best thing about In Her Shoes were the poems by Elizabeth Bishop. Actually, I thank her for the introduction, but I really felt that Weiner was holding back in that book. Parts were quite beautiful, but it was like she was determined to a write a "light" book, it felt groomed for mass-appeal. Possibly this Disorder Peculiar to the Country is worth reading, but I really find it hard to believe that Stephen King's book is (although it surely is big, sprawling and old-fashioned - that's a good thing?) I happen to like too-cool-for-school po-mo "tricks", which is why I'm now reading Boy Detective Fails by Chicago author Joe Meno. It comes with a decoder ring - neat trick!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Childhood reading habits

Please copy and paste this into comments and supply your answers! Mine are below.

1. Did you own any books as a child or rent from the library? What were they?
2. Were you a re-reader as a child? If so, which book did you re-read most often?
3. What’s the first adult book that captured your interest?
4. Are there children’s books that you passed by as a child that you have learned to love as an adult? Which ones?

1. Did you own any books as a child or rent from the library? What were they?

I had a lot of books, and I also wore out my library card. The books I'm most remember from childhood are all the Dr. Suess books, which my dad used to read to us before we went to bed. Also, I loved this book called A is for Annabelle and Where the Wild Things Are.

2. Were you a re-reader as a child? If so, which book did you re-read most often?

Oh yes, I read them all over and over again. I think that must be why I remember my childhood books so well, and today, even books that I remember loving, I sometimes can't really remember what they're about, because I don't have time to read them again and again.

3. What’s the first adult book that captured your interest?
Oh, how embarrassing, I think it must be those V.C. Andrews books, and I must have been... I don't know... 7th grade, maybe. And my mom forbid me to read them, because I was having nightmares, but I couldn't resist them (just as Corrine couldn't resist the incestuous love of her brother!) and read them under cover of night.

4. Are there children’s books that you passed by as a child that you have learned to love as an adult? Which ones?
I still love reading "children's" books today - there's Harry Potter, of course, which is great, and I recently read the Philip Pullman His Dark Materials books. And sometimes I read books to my little one year old friend, who's got some very charming infant books, like Goodnight, Gorilla, Goodnight Moon, and one, which I read for the first time just the other night, Jamberry, by Bruce Degan.

Monday, December 04, 2006


LibraryThing has a new feature called the "Unsuggester" - you type in a book you love and it gives you a list of books you're sure to hate. What purpose this might serve I don't really know, but it's kind of interesting. I typed in Zadie Smith's On Beauty, which I'm re-reading right now, and, sure enough, it gave me a list of titles I don't want anything to do with, like books on Jesus and Christianity, a bunch of sci-fi by Herbert and Heinlein, and bad chicklit from Jennifer Crusie.

I also tested out the "Suggester" - or "good" books, according to LibraryThing. Using the same title, I got a list of books including some of my faves, like, Safron Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Frazen's The Corrections, and also books by author's I really enjoy like Arundhati Roy, Ian McEwan and Phillip Roth. It recommends The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. I'm crazy about Atwood but I couldn't even finish The Blind Assassin. Surprises were The Accidental by Ali Smith, which looks like teen fiction (one of my fave genres), something called Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and The line of beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, a book I've always been vaguely interested in.

Friday, December 01, 2006

In the Image

I was so captivated by Dara Horn's The World to Come that I ordered her first book, In the Image (2002) the second I finished reading it.

Like The World to Come, In the Image is a thematic book, spanning generations and continents, with each character linked to the other by coincidence, family, or shared experience. One of the characters, Bill Landsmann, an elderly gentleman from Vienna, a Jewish man, "who should be dead" has a vast collection of slides - and the reader is treated to a description of his collection. But more than an art history lesson, Horn focuses on the issue of images - a concept of visual representation that deserves some further thought.

Deep into my own master's program in art history, I was having a discussion with my sister about art, and she interrupted me to say, "Why do you keep calling everything 'images'?" And I laughed and told her it was a snooty technicality - that, for example, if I were in class talking about, say, The Mona Lisa, and there was a slide of the Mona Lisa, what I was referring to was actually an image of the Mona Lisa, not THE Mona Lisa, the work of art. ("Work" of art, by the way, is beset by it's own set of snooty technicalities - ie. what is the "work"? The end product, the art? Or the process of creation?) Furthermore, even the actual Mona Lisa, the one hanging in the Louvre, is itself an image of an actual woman (well, you know, supposedly. Ok, say I'm talking about C├ęzanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire...).

Horn rather brilliantly returns to the inherent questions regarding the definition of the "image" and also inserts another aspect of the image's misleading qualities - that it presents a moment, and what comes before and what comes after may or may not be available. Her characters are stuck in images, or rather, images are stuck in her characters. Bill Landsmann is practically ruled by his collection of images, his stake in their cataloguing and controlled viewing is tied to his own carefully constructed memory of events. Other characters are also haunted by the image of moments that have changed or altered their lives, but to the point that they loose sight of the complexity of events that lead to these single moments. Therefore the falsified simplicity of the image occasionally leads characters to remain "stuck" in the image, unable to emotionally move beyond that moment.

Another theme of In the Image is the story of Job, from the Hebrew Bible. As Horn says in an interview in the back of the paperback:
What intrigued me most, though, was what I saw as the ultimate question of the book of Job. The book asks the question that so many people ask themselves: Why do bad things happen to good people? But as I read the book again and again, I decided that this question was mis-leading. To me, the central question of the Book of Job isn't that common questions - which, after all, can't really be answered and isn't answered at all in the book of Job - but rather: Are people "good" to begin with, or are they shaped by their experiences? What makes "bad things" important isn't whether they happen to you or to someone else because that's not your decision. What makes them important is the part that's your decision: what you do with them once they've happened.

Horn easily moves her narrative between time and space - some characters exist in the turn of the century in Manhattan, others in pre-WWII Amsterdam, others in WWI in the trenches, still others in today's New York and New Jersey. But Horn also allows her characters to live in dreams and fantasies; she's an innovative writer that even alters her narrative style to recall ancient Jewish texts:
19. And the father of William Landsmann also heeded not the cry of his wife, and he allowed her to perish, 20. and thus did William Landsmann's mother perish when William Landsmann was a young boy, 21. but William Landsmann did not curse God. 22. And William Landsmann was uprooted from his native land, and uprooted again, 23. And upon reaching the land of New Jersey, William Landsmann's father took his life, leaving William Landsmann alone, with neither mother nor father.

I find Horn's book (alas! There are only two!) so inspiring - she makes me want to pull out my dusty Bible and rethink parables, she makes me want to sign up for a class at a synagog, she makes me, yes... want to be a better person.

Monday, November 27, 2006


I read half of a couple of books lately - I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere, by Anna Galvada and No Touch Monkey, by Ayun Halliday.

Mostly I was interested in the chapter on Amsterdam hookers in No Touch Monkey - recommended by a friend. It's re: the law of the Red Light District: Don't photograph the hookers. Halliday is one of those $20 a day (or less) travellers - she's really into sleeping on park benches and proud of the good funk she gets going after wearing the same clothes for weeks on end and not showering. There's a time and a place for all that, sure - but for me that time and place has passed.

I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere is a book of short stories translated from the French. Some are breathtaking, but some are kind of lame. Each story has a similar voice and tone, making them somewhat difficult to differentiate. Neither book is holding my attention, and I just got In the Image by Dara Horn, so I'm going to move on to that one.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank

I picked up a copy of The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank: The stories of six women who knew Anne Frank, compiled by Willy Lindwer, in the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. I believe it was made in conjunction with or after the excellent documentary, Anne Frank Remembered. One woman was friends with Anne before she went into hiding, Hannah Elisabeth Pick-Goslar (she is also in the documentary), remarkably found Anne later in the camps, although they never actually saw each other because there was a wall between them. Most of the other women met Anne and her family in the camps - they were also people who had been in hiding, and, unfortunately, caught at the last minute. Each of these remarkable women, in their 70s and 80s when they recount their tales, mention how they new the Franks - how they busted up batteries with Anne and Margot and Mrs. Frank, a disgusting job but one which allowed them to talk with each other - and later how the girls had contracted typhus and were dying. But each story is, fittingly, their own, beginning before the war, their experience in the camps, their release after the war was over, and how they cope with their life experiences at the time of publication - most quite honest about how they choose not to remember certain details as a form of self-preservation, most also not able to understand how they survived while others died.

The book is not just a tribute to these six women, and, of course, Anne, but to all women who suffered during the war. It's a beautiful tribute to the sisterhood of women, extending across boundaries of religion, country, and race. Two of the women in the book formed a little club which, they both say, was the only way they survived. Writes one (Lenie de Jong-van Naarden):
Women seem to have greater endurance, to take the orders less to heart, and perhaps they are a bit more independent... Our little club of women has stayed close all these years, right up to today. Without each other, we wouldn't have made it.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Muhammad Yunus

Muhammad Yunus was on the Daily Show tonight. He won the Nobel Peace Prize this year for his work providing loans to poor people - sometimes very small loans (a couple of bucks, even) to very, very poor people. Like, beggars. Tonight he said that 97% of the loans are given to women. Yunus is Bangladeshi, so I originally perked my ears to this story (which I first heard about on a great interview on NPR) because it reminded me of my own period living in Bangladesh, and because he has a beautiful Bangladeshi accent that makes me feel all cozy inside. Obviously, he's a brilliant guy, and a wonderful humanitarian. He looked to the most marginalized sections of humanity and had faith in them. Once I had a brilliant idea that homeless people were an untapped resource, and that ad firms should consult the sign-bearing homeless for their marketing savvy (an idea I still hold to), although, instead of saying I should win the Nobel Peace Prize, a certain husband said I was a depraved human being! Genius, you know, is so infrequently recognized.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The World to Come

I picked up a copy of The World to Come for my vacation to Amsterdam, because I had read some great reviews, and it caught my eye because both this book and her other book (which I just ordered) both have to do with art. The art in question is a painting by Chagall, who also appears as a character in the novel. It's a sweeping story about multiple generations of a Jewish family, with dramatic themes of trust, creativity, and time. Horn is an expressive writer, whose descriptions of color and space easily match the joyous visuals of Chagall's work. She writes:
Color, color, bold, loud colors, colors that sang, colors that hummed, colors that screamed, colors that sobbed, or more often than anything else, colors that seethed, angry, bitter, unlooked at, unnoticed, darkening not from age but from loneliniess, from knowing that they do not exist without someone to see them - Sara did not merely see them, but heard them, smelled them, tasted them, touched them.
The World to Come has the emotional complexities of Safran Foer's excellent Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Like Safran Foer, Horn sensitively blends the highly charged histories of her characters - involving real-life events like war and terrorist attacks - without taking advantage of the emotional power or cheapening the meaning.

For me, the most interesting parts of the book were those in which the characters grappled with the concepts of what happens to us before we're born and after we die - and how the cycle of life so frequently occurs at the same time - that we lose and gain family members at the same time (a phenomenon I'm experiencing myself lately). She ties these ideas to Jewish parables (by the writer Der Nister, or Pinkhas Kahanovitch), allowing the characters to explore them spiritually and independently.

According to an interview in the back of the book (the paperback), Horn began writing this story after a Chagall painting, Study for 'Over Vitebsk,' (the same work in the book) was stolen from the Jewish Museum in New York. You can learn more about that story by listening to this audio report from NPR. Read the first chapter online, but I encourage you to read the rest as well.

Thank You, Jeeves

Over vacation, I took another P.G. Wodehouse book - this one, Thank You, Jeeves. All of the Jeeves and Wooster series follow a certain formula, which I outlined in my previous entry - Wooster finds himself in a bit of a bind, and then Jeeves comes up with a brilliant solution to get him out of it. This book was a little bit different, only in that Jeeves temporarily leaves the service of Bertie Wooster due to his insistence to play the banjolele. There are some pretty hilarious passages centered around Bertie's obsession with this instrument, but, on the negative side, there's also a few racist bits (of the black-face and N-word variety) in the book that really turned me off.

Finding the perfect vacation book is tricky. Laying on a beach is easy - I like a little Carl Hiaasen or some chick lit garbage - maybe Jane Green or something like that. But a city vacation is more difficult - I want something more intellectually stimulating - so for our trip to Amsterdam I picked up The World to Come, by Dara Horn - it was great!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Right ho

Right now I'm reading The Code of the Woosters, by P.G. Wodehouse. It's about a slightly dim, upper crusty British guy, Bertie, and his resourceful manservant, Jeeves. I love all the Jeeves and Wooster books that I've read. They're really funny (or, as Wodehouse might write, "rather spiffy") and the language is terrific. I've been laughing out loud while reading on the train, and I often find the urge to explain, "See, he just said, 'mens sana in corpore whatnot.'" This particular book, so far, focuses on a "cow creamer" and various romantic liaisons, which Bertie always seeks to avoid. Another line that made me laugh was the following, in which a friend of Bertie's explains a scheme:
"There was a story...about a duke who wouldn't let his daughter marry the young secretary, so the secretary got a friend of his to take the duke out on the lake and upset the boat, and then he dived in and saved the duke, and the duke said, 'Right ho.'"

Also everyone has really hilarious nicknames, like Stinker and Gussie and Stiffy. I've been trying to get my friends to call me by a nickname for years - I suggest something like Muffy or Kitty - but so far... nothing. BTW, the BBC series, Jeeves and Wooster, is quite good, although not as good as the books, and features another of my favorite authors, Stephen Fry, as Jeeves. His autobiography, Moab is My Washpot, is nothing less than superb.

The Code of the Woosters really should be read aloud - or at least that's what I wish to do with it - although a certain husband abhors the idea of being read to. It was a real problem when I read Me Talk Pretty One Day and kept saying, "Oh my god, listen to THIS!" I have only on one (ONE!) occasion gotten him to read to me: a little Harry Potter when I was so sick I thought I was dying. Ah, how I cherish the memory.

Me dear ol da used to read to me and my brother and sister when we were kids. Mostly Dr. Seuss, and he was very good at it. In my adult life I am read to very little, although once my friend Liz read J.D. Salinger to me on a car trip from San Francisco to LA. Occasionally I'll pick up a book on tape and listen to it before I go to bed. I listened to quite a few of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series in this way. They are read by Adjoa Andoh - she has a beautiful African accent that lulls me. Oh, Jesus Christ. I just googled her, and it turns out she's British, and that's not her real voice. Her voice over page describes her voice as "Authoritative, maternal, warm, smooth." Wow. If someone described my voice, it'd probably be "Unsure, brassy, annoying, stiff."

Well, I hope you have some nice stories to tell re: reading/being read to. Please leave a note in the comments if you'd like to share.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Kate, what happened?

Last night I finished One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson - after a rough start, I experienced a somewhat rough middle followed by a rough ending. It was disappointing. It had all these characters and I couldn't keep track of them. They were all Scottish and mildly bumbling, and if someone had some little idiosyncrasy that would help set them apart, someone else would have the same idiosyncrasy. Like, there were two cagey detective-types, and two Russian-hooker-types, and two grouchy, unfulfilled housewife-types and any number of timid, middle-aged, lonely people. Thematically, I think she was trying to create this focus on coincidence, but it was kind of weak, considering the connections between everyone were really contrived and ridiculous. Apparently it's a continuation of her last book, Case Histories, although it's been several years since I read it and I didn't remember anyone. I do recall Case Histories having a greater focus on the quality of prose, which was not impressive in One Good Turn.

I've been getting rid of a bunch of books recently, one of which was Save Karyn: One Shopaholic's Journey to Debt and Back by Karyn Bosnak. I reread a couple of chapters at lunch because I forgot my other book. The writing style is really elementary, but she's a likeable character, despite being outrageously fiscally irresponsible, and it is indeed an interesting little tale of the "journey to debt and back." She racks up something like $20,000 in credit card dept and then sells most of what she owns and starts making smarter decisions (like moving out of the upper west side to Brooklyn) and also starts a website kind of begging for help. Basically nickel by nickel she manages to pay off her cards. It's either reprehensible or just resourceful - you decide!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

I heart Kate Atkinson

I started reading Kate Atkinson's new book, One Good Turn. I'm really nuts about Atkinson, ever since I randomly picked up Behind the Scenes at the Museum many years ago. Ah, I remember it well... Rizoli's in San Francisco, Post Street. It was a beautiful store which, alas, is no longer there. A few years ago she came out with Case Histories, of which, apparently, One Good Turn is a continuation. I have a terrible memory, so actually I can't verify that right now. I do remember loving Case Histories, which had frequent references to Buffy the Vampire Slayer - see? Kate Atkinson and me, we're like soul sisters. Emotionally Weird and Human Croquet are also quite good, but if you want to check out her work, I'd start out with Behind the Scenes or Case Histories first.

I'll keep you posted on One Good Turn. I'm not very far into it. Actually, I was about 50 pages in and then I decided to start over because I didn't know what the heck was going on (that's what I get for reading from 11:30-midnight).

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Chicago Public Library Audio Books

So, it turns out the audio download feature on the Chicago Public Library website totally sucks. After a little glitch with my card (it turns out I had an unpaid fine - oopsie!) I downloaded the required software and then checked out a couple of books - all that is easy enough, although nothing works on a mac - but it turns out most of the books you can't download to a CD or put on all MP3 players (certainly not mine). So, I ask you, what good is a downloaded book if it's just stuck on your computer? I can't even put it on my mac laptop and carry it into another room. Can't listen to it in the car. Some books you can put on a cd, but none of the ones I wanted to rent. Bummer.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Hours

The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, won the Pulitzer in 1999 and was made into a movie in 2002 - practically everyone involved was nominated for Oscars and Nicole Kidman won Best Actress for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf. Usually I trust the ol' Pulitzer committee, but I've avoided The Hours for some time, because at first I didn't like the movie - I thought it was really depressing. But, the movie was on television a couple of times and I found myself really enjoying it.

The Hours is based on Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway - I've only read about half of it. It's gorgeous, but I can't seem to commit. Cunningham's ability to "borrow" from Mrs. Dalloway without being derivative or (worse!) boring is brilliant, especially in the first chapter or two of the book, in which the late 20th century Mrs. Dalloway "buy(s) the flowers herself."

With strong feminist and homosexual themes, The Hours might initially seem out of step with Woolf's 1925 novel, but, of course, those themes are present in Mrs. Dalloway as well. Cunningham writes convincingly from a female perspective, and shows a sensitivity toward feminist issues. It struck me as bizarre, actually, that the book could possibly be written by a man.

I enjoyed the book, but it's so similar to the movie it's kind of like reading a screenplay. In any event, it can be read very quickly - I finished it in little more than a few hours. Obviously no replacement for Woolf's book, it certainly enhances her writing. Who knows, one day I may be able to finish Mrs. Dalloway.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Special Topics, part deux

So, I try very hard not to read dust jackets, and when I read a hard-cover book, I take them off, cause they just get in the way and get all torn up. So, 350 pages into Special Topics, which I was almost literally unable to put down since yesterday's post, something shocking happened. Something which is written right on the jacket, but I didn't see coming because I didn't read it. Anyway, the approximately 150 pages left were quite thrilling, and I hesitate to say much because I don't like to give things away - I'll just beg you to avoid the jacket (and the website) and read this book right away!

Oh, BTW, it turns out Marisha Pessl's among the young and beautiful (see previous posts) who also happen to be brilliant. They sure do make an unemployed, out-of-shape, unpublished gal like myself feel like they haven't done much with their lives.

Well, I think next I'm either going to read The Hours, or Sabbath's Theatre, by Phillip Roth. I don't believe either involves a prep school. If you read Special Topics in Calamity Physics, let me know what you think!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Special Topics

I'm about half-way through Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl. It's her debut novel, and it's really amazing. Already receiving high critical praise, I'll be very surprised if it doesn't sweep the book awards in the next year.

Fabulously po-mo, with illustrations (by the author) and structured, according to the introduction, like a syllabus, with each chaptered titled after books on a must-read list (Othello, Wuthering Heights, Brave New World...), Special Topics is a book for the literary-minded. Pessl makes frequent references to both real and surely fabricated books to enrich understanding, sometimes sending me scuttling off to to check her references: that I was alone in a strange, stiff bed, a pale morning soaking through the curtains, the overhead lamp a giant eye staring down at me, The Histories of the Bluebloods began to creep out of the underbrush like exotic nocturnal animals at nightfall (see "Zorilla," "Shrew," "Jerboa," "Kinkajou" and "Small-Eared Zorro," Encyclopedia of Living Things, 4th ed.). I had very little experience dealing with Dark Pasts, apart from close readings of Jane Eyre (Bronte, 1847) and Rebecca (Du Maurier, 1938)...

She's a master of both simile and metaphor, as you can see from the passage above - but averages at least one a page. Her gift for mixing high and low culture in one blow is really extraordinary:

Dad, of course, witnessing this transformation, felt the way Van Gogh would probably feel, if, one hot afternoon, he happened to wander into a Sarasota Gift Shoppe and found next to the cardboard baseball caps and Fun-in-the-Sun seashell figurines, his beloved sunflowers printed on one side of two-hundred beach towels ON SALE for just $9.00.

Dialogue is sparse but incredibly effective - she gives even the most passing character a unique voice - such as the lead character's professor father at lecture:

You might have heard of various imbeciles who waged war on the U.S. government in the sixties and seventies. The New Communist Left. The Weather Underground. The Students for the Blah-Blah-No-One-Takes-You-Seriously. In fact, I think they were worse than Stu, because they smashed, not monogamy, but hope for productive protest and objection in this country. With their delusional self-importance, ad hoc violence, it became easy to dismiss anyone voicing dissatisfaction with the way things are are freaky flower chiles.

or even the guy that works at the gas station:

Contrary to popular belief, person needs heartbreak and betrayal. Else you got no stayin' power. Can't play a lead for five whole acts. Can't play two performances inna day. Can't fashion a character arch from Point A ta Point G. Can't get through the denewment, create a convincin' through line - all that stuff. See whut I'm sayin'? Person's gotta get banged up. Gotta get jerked around, lived in. So he's got somethin' to use, see.

And if all those qualities weren't enough, and frankly, for me plot is secondary to great writing, Special Topics comes through with a great story line, about a mother-less girl who becomes friends with a group everyone calls the "Bluebloods" at her exclusive prep school (I really did not plan to read books only about prep schools this fall!)

Special Topics reminds me of the brilliant but ultimately unreadable 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner A Confederacy of Dunces
by John Kennedy Toole. That was a hell of a book that I grieved not finishing (but the main character is such a raving lunatic I really couldn't take it anymore).

Oh, Jesus - I just went to the book's website which has some spoilers! So don't go there (even though I just gave you the link)! Well, I've got to get back to it! I'll write another post when I finish!

Friday, October 06, 2006

What people are reading in SF

Check out my friend Sonya's blog, People Reading. She takes pics of folks reading in San Francisco and does a short write-up about the books. I think the coolest thing is how non-judgmental she is about people's choices. San Francisco is a reading city - just everyone has a book on the train and bus. I remember one time meeting this guy who had just moved to town and he couldn't believe that even homeless people read.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Audio Books

Wow! The Chicago Public Library has audio books available for download! That is SO cool. I love listening to books on CD, especially on long car trips and sometimes before I go to bed, when I'm too tired to read, you know, with my eyes.

Assuming it works, this is totally awesome. I just tried to check out Lemony Snicket and for some reason my card was blocked - I'll just have to clear that up tomorrow - I'll keep you posted!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Dissident

Nell Freudenberger's one of those hot new authors - gorgeous and brilliant and young. Her book of short stories, Lucky Girls, came out in 2003 to critical acclaim. I read it then and liked it, although I can't really remember it very well now. She sparked a lot of gossip from other artists and even the coined phrase, "schadenfreudenberger," which, as far as I can tell, means "an author you hope will suck but who, you must grudgingly admit, is actually pretty good." Guess who? Curtis Sittenfeld of Prep was one of the admirers who made that grudging admission in Salon, although it was obviously hard for her to do without mentioning the Iowa Writers Workshop over and over again and doing some serious name-dropping along the way.

Freudenberger's latest (by which I mean 2nd) book is The Dissident, a book about culture clash in Los Angeles, when a wealthy family hosts a Chinese artist for a year while he creates new work and teaches art at an exclusive private school. The book bounces back and forth between previous events in China involving a group of performance artists and present events in LA. The interactions and creative process of the Chinese artists must be at least loosely based on the actual artistry of the Gutai Group, Japanese performance artists of the 1960s and 70s. Through conversation of the artists, Freudenberger raises (somewhat awkwardly) various questions related to performance art - such as who the author ultimately is (photographer or performing artist?) or what the art is (the photograph or the performance?).

A good deal of The Dissident has to do with cultural and racial interactions, as the wealthy (Caucasian) mother of the central family struggling to relate to both her Chinese guest, her son's less affluent, African American girlfriend, and an immigrant student at the private school in a politically correct way. This very struggle, or need to strive toward political correctness, illustrates her discomfort with those outside her social strata. Although a kind woman, this central character suffers in her relatively isolated world, unable to really connect with those around her.

Ultimately I found the plot rather dull and the soi-disant twist unsurprising. Many of the themes that Freudenberger slips into this book are explored much more fully and wonderfully in Zadie Smith's masterpiece, On Beauty, which is one of the more stunning books I've had the pleasure of reading in the past few years. Smith's deeper understanding of the artistic and racial issues led not only to greater insight into those important matters, but also to a much more satisfying read.

Friday, September 29, 2006

One Book, One Chicago

Someone in Chicago came up with a very cool concept - One Book, One Chicago. It's a great idea that unfortunately absolutely no one knows about and for which they pick terrible books. It's (poorly) promoted by the Chicago Public Library. This fall the book is Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, which came out in 1999. I read it then, and didn't love it. I think I'll give it another go, just to see if it strikes up any conversation on the train. Lahiri is a competent writer, but a little distant. I don't think she's a good choice for One Book, One Chicago, but then again, it's a sight better than One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (spring 2006).

The program began in 2001 with To Kill a Mockingbird (I suppose you can't go wrong with that) and was followed with some odd choices like The Things they Carried and Pride and Prejudice. To me, the key to a program like this, which according to their website, is meant to "cultivate a culture of reading and discussion in Chicago by bringing our diverse city together around one great book" is to choose books that appeal to a wide audience of all ages and cultural backgrounds, and also, essentially, to choose a book that has something to to do with Chicago! Not like, a friggin' Russian prison camp. That why Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun is really the only choice so far that's made any sense, although I don't think most people are very adept at reading plays.

Here are some books I would choose:
Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett and Brett Helquist
The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
The Hatbox Baby, by Carrie Brown (somebody told me it was good, and anyway it's a nice alternative to the awful Devil in the White City.)
Middlesex: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides
American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting, by Steven Biel

In other Chicago book news, last night I saw local fave and Check, Please host, Alpana Signh reading from her new book at Women and Children First bookstore. That was a good time. They had a wine tasting from the new wine shop in the neighborhood. Alpana was very charming.


Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld's 2005 book about a young girl from Indiana who goes to a high school at a Northeast boarding school. Although the book is supposedly fictional, the first person account reads like an autobiography. Indeed, Sittenfeld herself is from Cincinnati and attended a prep school outside Boston like the one in the book.

Lee is an unlikable character; she's shy, so she rarely reaches out to people, but she has an expectation that they should reach out to her. She broods and sulks; she develops a crush on a schoolmate and then never speaks to him. She finally makes a friend and then ditches her for the friend's friend. She doesn't even do well in school and is continually scraping by with a C average. She's agonizingly self-conscious, like I admit I was in middle school and high school. I remember it's crippling effects and it's not pretty, just as it isn't in Prep. So I was willing to give Lee a wide path. I gave her a generous space to come into her own. But, ultimately, following Lee though four years of high school becomes onerous – she doesn't grow or learn from her mistakes, she never comes out of her judgmental stage, and she continues to brood in her room, never taking a chance or expanding her little world. Of course, most teenagers eek out their existence for at least a few years, and I think that's what makes the first half of Prep (and books like The Half-Blood Prince, or The Catcher in the Rye) so interesting, that nearly everyone can relate to this type of character. But also, nearly everyone (including Harry and Holden) eventually grows out of it! The sheer drudgery of Lee's existence becomes burdensome. Like Dawn Wiener in Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse, observing Lee's miserable life becomes painful and embarrassing.

Whether that aspect overwhelms the book's positive characteristics or not may be a matter of choice. Sittenfeld's writing style is appealing and often beautiful and insightful. Even if you find yourself loathing Lee (as I did) you must admit that Sittenfeld perfectly captures the pre-teen and teenage girl. The few interactions of Lee with her Indiana parents provide much needed access into Lee's personality – her quick-tempered father and passive mother are briefly seen but well-developed characters. I wish that we had been treated to what it was like for Lee on summer breaks and holidays as she inevitably became alienated from her family.

I recently read Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, by Alexandra Robbins – another book about isolated societies and mostly-wealthy people living together at school. Prep carries a feeling of authenticity that Pledged (non-fiction) reinforces. Neither a recommendation for or against this type of life-style, Prep makes boarding school seem, for the most part, very attractive, it's only the main character whom I'm not interested in knowing.

I haven't really read any Burgess

I decided to start a new blog just for book reviews. I was having a hard time coming up with a title, and finally settled on this semi-pretentious one after taking a quiz, "How well read are you?" on I think it's pretty cool that they included more than one question about children's books, a genre I enjoy very much. I got 10 out of 10, so I figured I'm entitled. I hope you enjoy this blog; please post comments to let me know if you agree or disagree with my reviews - I love nothing better than talking about a book!