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.