Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Presents!

I got some lovely books for Christmas that I just can't WAIT to start reading:


From me ma: A Garden of Roman Verse, which she picked up at the Getty Villa in LA (I love a book with provenance). It contains original latin verse and the translation, like so:

I hate and love, woudst thou the reason know?
I know not, but I burn, and feel it so.


Odi et amo. Quare id faciam. Fortasse Requiris.
Nescio. Sed Fieri sentio et excrucior.


My sister gave me a nice stack of books: The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde. It comes highly reviewed by a lot of authors I really admire like Zadie Smith and Margaret Atwood. Ooh - it has pictures!

She also gave me: Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a Smartass Goddess (nuff said) by Susan Jane Gilman. It looks like it has some good advice for a whippersnapper smartass like myself.


and Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media, by Susan Douglas. I loves me some feminist theory, yo.


A certain husband gave me the new J.K. Rowling, The Tales of Beedle the Bard. I'm looking forward to reading it with him.

I also got a big pile of Christmas miracle. Over on my little-read book club blog, where I keep track of what we've read and are about to read, a woman posted in comments and asked me to write to her. She was from the publisher of our January selection, the latest Margaret Atwood, Payback, and offered to send us all copies. They just got here yesterday! Isn't the internets a marvelous place?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dead Until Dark

So, I got my hair done about a week or so ago, and my colorist really likes Twilight, and then she was like, OMG, do you love Sookie Stackhouse? And I'm like, What's that? and she's like It's this series by Charlaine Harris who has a dirty, filthy mind, and the books that those True Blood shows are based on? And I'm like, Oh yeah, like these Southern vampires? Yeah, she says, they're like, mainstream, kind of, and "true blood" is this fake blood created by the Japanese that they can drink.

I'm in, I said.

She says, You don't have to wait until the 4th book, ifyouknowwhatImean.

You had me at filthy dirty. I told her.

So, the first one is called Dead Until Dark, and the main character is Sookie Stackhouse, who's psychic. She can read everyone's thoughts except for this one vampire, who she falls in love with right away. And, yes, vampires are "out" although they're mostly discriminated against.

What I found quite interesting, in comparison to other vampire stuff I'm been reading/watching lately, is what this book has in common with (particularly) the Twilight series and how it deviates.

An icky thing that the books have in common is that the vampire dudes, who are, of course, ridic-strong, are always picking up (literally) our fair heroine and carrying her around and holding her on their laps. WTF? Is that like, a thing I'm not aware of?

Aside from a little lap-sitting, Sookie's much more of a liberated woman then the teenager in Twilight - in fact, it's mainly Sookie who does the savin' in this book. Also there's like, lots and lots of sex. And fluid exchange:

Someone was stretched out beside me; it was the vampire. I could see his glow. I could feel his tongue moving on my head. He was licking my head wound.
Whhhhhaaaat?

This is by no means high literature, but it sure was a lot of fun and the perfect thing to read on a recent plane ride. It actually had a pretty good murder mystery that I didn't solve but wasn't too far fetched, and I like the universe she's created. I guess they're technically sci-fi, although I don't really like labeling things like that. I'd definitely suggest this to anyone as a better alternative to Twilight if one wanted to jump on the vampire bandwagon.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Excellent Women

I can't remember where I first heard Barbara Pym's name, but I wish I could so I could thank them! Picked up a copy of her Excellent Women and now want to read everything she's ever written and also press a few of my like-minded friends to do the same. How did I never read her before now????

Excellent Women is set in post-war England, and the main character is an unmarried woman who has a full-life and lots of friends. Because she's unmarried, people make a lot of assumptions about her, and are always trying (to use the modern parlance) to hook her up with someone. Others can't imagine that she could be satisfied with her life. "'What do women do if they don't marry,' she mused, as if she had no idea what it could be, having been married once herself and about to be married again."

I like to consider myself quite sympathetic to the single person - as a person who doesn't intend to have children, I gots to stand by the person who makes another non-traditional choice and doesn't intend (or isn't planning) to get married. We're like cousins, see? Poor cousins that the rest of the family thinks is really sad.

Pym is a very funny writer - so witty, clever, and subtle! I often laughed out loud. Read how one character explains her hatred of birds:
"... I was sitting in the window this afternoon and as it was a fine day I had it open at the bottom, when I felt something drop into my lap. And do you know what it was?" She turned and peered at me intently.

I said that I had no idea.

"Unpleasantness," she said, almost triumphantly so that I was reminded of William Caldicote. Then lowering her voice she explained, "From a bird, you see. It had
done something when I was actually sitting in my own drawing-room."

I don't think I'll ruin it for you if I mention that the term "excellent women" is used frequently. Generally an excellent woman is a selfless women who toils for others - in exchange they call her excellent. In one amazing passage, Pym spells out her definition:
   'Ester Clovis is certainly a very capable person," he said doubtfully. "An excellent woman altogether."
   "You could consider marrying an excellent woman?" I asked in amazement. "But they are not for marrying."
   "You're surely not suggesting that they are for the other things?" he said, smiling.
   That had certainly not occurred to me and I was annoyed to find myself embarrassed.
   "They are for being unmarried," I said, "And by that I mean a positive rather than a negative state."
   "Poor things, aren't they allowed to have the normal feelings, then?"
   "Oh, yes, but nothing can be done about them."

I love how her main character insists that the "excellent woman" is in a "positive state" and is also not a sexless person.

I've read several reports that Pym is like the natural extension of Austin - at least in terms of the continuation of the British social critic - I thought Excellent Woman was an amazing non-traditional story.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

I got hooked on Junot Díaz after hearing him read How to Date a Brown Girl (Black girl, White Girl, or Halfie) on The New Yorker Fiction podcast (which is, by the way, a must-have 'cast). His latest novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer this year, and I nominated it for my book club.

I don't want to give much of the plot away, so I won't write too much about the specifics, because you (by which I mean everyone) really should read it. I thought it was nothing short of remarkable, especially in how Díaz narrates the story. The narrative voice changes several times throughout the novel, and, I have to tell you, Diaz is just an absolute genius at this. I mean, he's a total rockstar when it comes to language. Here's a passage near the beginning that hooked me but good:
It was so hard to believe what was happening that Oscar really couldn't take it seriously. The whole time the movie--Manhunter--was on, he kept expecting niggers to jump out with cameras and scream, Surprise! Boy, he said, trying to remain on her map, this is some movie. Ana nodded; she smelled of some perfume he could not name, and when she pressed close the heat off her body was vertiginous.

The narrative voice, the voice of a "ghetto" teenager full of slang and delicious wit and sexuality uses the word "vertiginous" and then puts it in italics just to let you know he's used it? Mamí, that guy can write a fuckin' book!

Díaz also integrates a lot of Spanish words and phrases. That was fun for me, because I've studied Spanish, and I could easily translate most of it myself. But, there's also a lot of slang, and idioms aren't really something you learn in school. Especially swear words and variations on "fuck". So, it wasn't just a challenge for me but quite a challenge for my usual translation tools as well. I've heard read a little bit of criticism of the mixture of Spanish and English, but I love nothing better than coming across a word I've never read before. It's like, just when you think you've eaten everything - you go to a restaurant and there's something on the menu you've never had before! Who wouldn't want that?

However, if you don't feel like translating the text, it's not really necessary - Diaz writes in such a way that, contextually, you know what's being said. Take this sentence, for example, about Oscar's abusive mother: She would hit us anywhere, in front of anyone, always free with the chanclas and the correa, but now with her cancer there's not much she can do anymore. You don't have to know that chanclas are a type of shoe or a correa is a belt; she's just hitting them with something.

I heard a terrific interview with Díaz on Fresh Air in which he explains that the challenges of the book (the language, the various extremely nerdy references) parallel the experience of learning to read, which (I'm paraphrasing) is a group experience. When you're learning to read, all the time you come across a word you don't know - you go to your mom, you go to your teacher, and together you figure out what it means. And, it's so true about this book - quite a few times I had to check with a certain husband about a comic book or LOtR reference; I called up on one of my Spanish-speaking friends to check on my translation (Yes, it means 'fuck'. What are you reading, you dirty girl?).

In this way, the reader not only reads about the immigrant experience, but actually experiences it! By being placed in a position of interpreting so many things you will be (let me assure you) unfamiliar with, you'll get a glimpse of what it's like to be an immigrant, dealing with linguistic and cultural elements outside your realm of experience, at the same time, the experience of learning to read (which for me, and I'm sure all book lovers, was an incredible, empowering discovery!) is mirrored.

Friend D also pointed out at the book club meeting that Díaz's method of writing about abuse and torture is done in such a way that the reader's sympathies are naturally on the side of the victim, rather than from the perspective of the perpetrator, which I thought was a rather brilliant observation. He also said something about Lacan, but I seem to have forgotten due to several glasses of wine and the general uproar at the mention of "Lacanian" anything. (Perhaps he will enlighten in comments?)

I'll be reading this book again very soon and then sending it to the west coast for my sister's book club. I'm sure they'll love it. I'd recommend it to just about anyone, but especially to folks who love reading about the immigrant experience.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles Began

I read Maus about a month ago - it ends rather abruptly, just as Vladek is taken prisoner and sent to Auschwitz. I had to read the second one. The artist and author, Art Spiegelman, has brilliantly composed the books, drawing the Jews as mice, the Germans as cats, Americans as dogs and so on. As in the first book, Art has many painful conversations with his father to learn about his experiences during the war, not just because of the content, but compounded by their rocky relationship.

Vladek's experiences are, as you might imagine, horrible. Spiegelman adds to the documentation of Holocaust survivors with his father's story, and in the end, makes the story even more real by including a copy of an actual photo of his father. I must have stared at that page for ten minutes - it was so startling to see that photo suddenly in the midst of all those drawings. And the photo is so strange - he said he found a shop that had new, clean uniform from the camps, so he had a picture of himself taken in the uniform for his wife. He smiles, looking handsome, healthy, and so ironic. Another bit that really moved me was a conversation with his therapist that Spiegelman recounts - despite his success, Spiegelman feels guilty and small (he literally draws himself as a child). He says, "No matter what I accomplish, it doesn't seem like much compaired to surviving Auschwitz." His therapist asks him if he admires his father for surviving - of course he does. Then he says, "Then you think it's admirable to survive. Does that mean it's NOT admirable to NOT survive?... But it wasn't the BEST people who survived, nor did the best ones die. It was RANDOM!" They get down to the purposefulness/uselessness of telling any story. After all, it's fairly common to hear phrases like Never Forget regarding events like the Holocaust - a mantra, as if remembering will help us avoid repeating. And yet, horrible events occur every day. More unspeakable atrocities are occurring right now. Spiegelman quotes Samuel Beckett, "Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness." He and his therapist sit in silence for a moment. "On the other hand, he SAID it," he says. Spiegelman's voice is a powerful tool, he shows us his concerns, and proceeds with the story.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Homage to Catalonia

Homage to Catalonia is George Orwell's tale of his experience fighting in the Spanish Civil war. The book was first published in 1938, shortly after the 2 year war ended.

I read this book for my book club, and honestly otherwise wouldn't have picked it up, not being a huge reader of non-fiction and particularly war-based non-fiction. To tell the truth, I really didn't know a thing about the Spanish Civil War. I'm happy to learn new things, but it was a very challenging book for me to read. Something that became immediately apparent is that there's a lot of confusing information about the Spanish Civil War, and my efforts to do a little outside research were quickly abandoned because I just didn't have the time to become a expert on it. Turns out, all that conflicting information is one of the major reasons Orwell wrote the book, as he continually states throughout that it's his first-person account and attempt to set the record straight. Because there was so much propaganda floating around, especially about his (losing) side, he has a clear goal to make his truthful perspective known. I kept thinking about that old phrase, "History is written by the winners" while reading Homage to Catalonia, particularly when comparing it to some of the information I found about the war.

I found the book very readable, although quite a few in our club disagreed with me. To me, it read like a novel. Orwell's experience follows (or at least is written in) a fairly neat (by which I mean tidy) narrative arch, from his joining of the militia to getting shot and finally fleeing Spain altogether. Orwell's description of getting shot in the (goddamn!) neck is really something, as is his description of Barcelona for the brief period in which it was a completely communist city. It's fairly easy to see (or at least infer) how such events inspired Orwell to later write 1984. So many of his real-life experiences in the war were completely absurd, like being on the front lines without, essentially, a weapon, like being so close to the enemy and not fighting them. His describes a society with forced ideals (rather than slowly evolved over time), with all the strained ideology and (I think inherent) hypocrisy, that really couldn't sustain itself. It's as if you can draw a clear line from that description write to the society he creates in 1984 (although I have a bad habit of trying to draw straight lines when we all know they're more often circuitous).

A word on editions: my copy was published in 1952; a friend's copy from the 80's was quite different. In her book, several chapters had become appendices, supposedly at the request of Orwell, who thought those chapters disrupted the flow. The 1952 edition contains a ridiculous forward by Lionel Trilling that begins, "This book is one of the important documents of our time." which almost caused me to stop reading the thing right there! I thought it was a really fascinating book, and a great book for our club to read. There are also some parallels to Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls (also about the Spanish Civil War), as you might imagine. And, it also got me interested in some other aspects, like propoganda posters and the role of women in the war.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Flora Segunda

I read this book (or, half of it, anyway), Flora Segunda, by Ysabeau Wilce, because I read a brief review in Salon that stated, "Weird in the best possible way, Wilce's novels are what girl readers graduating from the Harry Potter books ought to be reading instead of the insipid "Twilight" series."

Having been sucked unwittingly into the Twilight series myself, and a big fan of YA fiction (as the faithful reader knows), I was a sucker for just such a recommendation.

For the 50 or 60 pages, I was riveted. Flora Segunda is young woman who lives in some kind of magical universe where, like Harry Potter, some people practice magic, some people are not quite human, and often our silly little laws of physics don't apply. I was most fascinated by Flora's house, which Wilce is always describing - a decrepit house so large Flora doesn't know the half of it; a house that changes, where you might get lost of a week if the elevator takes you to an unknown area.

Because Flora's mother (the general of the army [shout out for the ladies!]) travels, Flora essentially lives alone, with the exception of a drunken father-type that she calls by his first name and who mostly stays in his room. The house does have a butler, however, who would normally keep this falling-apart mansion glittering, but he's been locked away for many years. The butler convinces Flora to breathe life back into him, literally by pressing her lips to his and blowing into his mouth.

Wilce's universe is like a bizarro San Francisco - Flora lives in "Califa" and folks like me that lived or live in SF will get a little thrill by local landmarks with a twist. Wilce also uses creative language, digging deep into her wing-dings to create words that made me pause and wonder how they might be pronounced.

For some reason the book got a little boring for me around page 200 hundred, and there I've stopped. I might come back to it later on. Possibly it's just me - I can think of a couple of friends who would probably love this book. And, I should think it's absolutely terrific for teens and pre-teens that have just finished Harry Potter.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Vacation Reading

Part of being self-aware is knowing what kind of book is perfect for a vacation. Many a conversation have I had with friends about this very subject. "I'm going to a beach house for a week, what should I take?" That's easy - Bridget Jones' Diary, or The Nanny Diaries, or something else with "Diary" in the title. I like Carl Hiaasen for a week in Cancun, lying on the beach. Something complex for a night in the woods: Wallace Stegner or Carol Shields.

So, for our trip to Florence, I needed something special - not too gripping that I wouldn't want to leave it and go look at Donatello's Magdalene in the Museo Dell'Opera Del Duomo, not something about Florence, like A Room with a View, which would have been silly (plus Forster bores me to tears), not something I've been dying to read, which would be forever tainted by the memory of reading it on a plane. Not something chancy, because what if I hated it and then - horror - found myself with nothing to read at all?

Long did I stare at my (embarrassingly large) to-read pile, trying to figure out what to take. And then! Ah Ha! The Best American Short Stories of 1999, edited by Amy Tan. Perfect - a nice thick volume, short stories by Junot Diaz, Chitra Divakaruni, Pam Houston, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lorrie Moore, Annie Proulx, Alice Munro (and more)! And, if I ran into something I didn't like, who cares? I'd just skip over it.

Turns out it was the perfect book to take - the ones I expected to love, I did love, and yes, I did run into a couple of stinkers but just a few, and I found a couple of wonderful stories by writers I've never heard of that really captured my imagination - like The Rest of Her Life, by Steve Yarbrough, which was so amazing even now I think about it, and have created a whole movie about it in my mind.

The only lame thing is that about 5 of the short stories came from the New Yorker, which I suppose would have been kind of a drag if you had a subscription to the New Yorker in 1999 and then bought this book. Even though they may very well have comprised 1/5 of The Best short stories that year, I wish Tan had gone outside the New Yorker box. I mean, everyone knows that you're going to find a great short in the New Yorker - it would have been more fun to see something unexpected.

What do you like to read on vacation?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Breaking Dawn

Despite claims that I would never read another Stephanie Meyer book again, I couldn't resist reading Breaking Dawn. A couple of good friends informed me that it was the worse one yet (and therefore the best). I wasn't going to read it unless it met two criteria: 1. That she finally gets turned into a vampire and 2. They have sex.

(Spoiler Alert) Both those things happen, but not in that order. If you're not familiar with the Twilight series, I'll tell you. It's about a girl who falls in love with a vampire, and, for really no reason, he also falls in love with her. For various reasons, they struggle, and other vampires try to kill them. They persevere. The first book is ridiculous but readable, the second book is beyond ridiculous and really boring, I didn't read the 3rd book, and the forth book is, once again, beyond ridiculous and almost unreadable.

It's a well known fact that readers of these books are either teenage girls or pervy 30-somethings like myself. Two demographics that appreciate a good sex scene - but, I was a bit disappointed. And, slightly creeped out. Instead of the filthy details, what Meyer delivers is something like this:
Edward kissed her and they fell onto the bed... [NEXT CHAPTER]
"Oh, good morning. What happened to the headboard?"
"I broke it."
"Really? I didn't notice."
"You were preoccupied."
"Yes I was. With the sex. That we had. Huh. I'm covered in bruises."
"What? No! I nearly killed you with my vampiric strength! I shall never forgive myself!"
"Don't worry. I liked it."

What's such a shame about these books is that they're so old fashioned. I wish that the (supposedly) most popular book young women were reading wasn't about some dopey teenager who requires saving all the time by her strong, wise boyfriend. And (here comes another big time spoiler) what happens but she gets preggo practically the first time they have sex?!? Her vampire husband (who wanted to wait until they got married to consummate the ol' union) tries to convince her to have a vampire-baby abortion, but, papa, she's keeping the baby (even if it is a blood-sucking monster that will be the death of everyone they know. Was Sarah Palin involved in this?)

I really don't know what's worse, though - the post-feminist story or the pre-brain writing. Meyer writes with all the grace of a sledgehammer. What (I believe) is meant to pass for witty dialogue sounds like two idiots yakking. She's less subtle than even Dan Brown. At one point, I am not making this up, she wrote, "A tear the size of a baseball rolled into the russet fur beneath his eye." There's 754 pages of this nonsense!

Naturally, I did not read it all. After about 50 pages, I started skipping about 10 pages per turn of the page, and then passed on the last 100. It's good for a laugh, but might just be the downfall of our entire society.

Friday, October 10, 2008

When Will There be Good News?

I'm a big fan of Kate Atkinson - especially her "early" work, which is really gothic and beautiful. Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995, and won the Whitbread Book of the Year) is really terrific, as are Emotionally Weird and her book of short stories, Not the End of the World.

When Will There be Good News is sort of a continuation of her previous book, Case Histories, vaguely centered around a character named Jackson Brodie, a former-police detective. I think both of those books are good, but, they almost border on having too many characters. I find it difficult to keep them straight - although that might be purposeful. Most of the characters, particularly in this latest book, all have something in common, which is that, for them, it's just one damn thing after another. Unfortunately I've had a couple of periods like that myself, so I could really relate. The title made perfect sense to me, the minute I saw it - it's that sentiment that (JESUS CHRIST) WHEN will something GOOD happen?!?

I think Atkinson is a wonderful writer, and she's also a very British writer. When Will There Be Good News is full of snippets of old English poetry and songs. I really like her sensibility, she's clearly a feminist, and a lot of her books address violence toward women... women who find strength. She also writes a good mystery - surprises me every time.

I do hope that she leaves behind the whole Jackson Brodie business for her next book, for some reason this kind of seriality gets old for me. It's not, by the way, necessary to read Case Histories before this one. I was very fuzzy on the details myself, but it doesn't matter.

There's an excerpt of the first chapter (you'll be hooked!) on her website.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Maus

Maus is a rather famous graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. It won a Pulitzer Prize "Special Award", and Alan Moore said of Spiegelman, "I have been convinced that Art Spiegelman is perhaps the single most important comic creator working within the field and in my opinion Maus represents his most accomplished work to date…"

It's biographical, and tells the tale of a graphic novelist son who is listening to his father tell his story of living through the Holocaust. The story is beautifully and wonderfully told, and I loved the juxtaposition the two stories. In one, the son, who does not have a good relationship with his father, pulls the story from his father, trying to force him into a linear narrative. The other is his father's story, a Polish Jew with an incredible tale. The son (Arty) struggles with the writing of the story, because it's not really the story he wants to tell. He wishes he had his mother's side, to "give the book some balance." Spiegelman does something very interesting with the art, by drawing the Jews as mice (hence the title), nazis as cats, Polish people as pigs, Americans as dogs and so on. I'm sure many a dissertation has already been written about the animalian depictions! Something I thought was very sophisticated was how sometimes the characters wear masks to blend in. Spiegelman's use of the mask is really quite amazing on so many levels - I think he exemplifies how thin are the barriers between us - how fluid identity and culture are. .Well, now I understand why everyone lists Maus as THE comic to read.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Banned Books Week!

It never ceases to amaze me, the books that have been banned, and continue to get "challenged", even today, in libraries and schools across the country. Banned Books Week, sponsored by the American Library Association, is a great time to "celebrate of the freedom to read".

The top-banned book of 2007 was, of all things, a children's book about two penguins who raise an orphaned chick called And Tango Makes Three. (I think I'm going to pop two copies in the mail for my nephews today!)

Some of my favorite books round out the top of the most challenged books of the last decade: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. And you'll find some seemingly innocuous books like A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein, The Giver by Lois Lowry, Blubber by Judy Blume, James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl...

Something cool you can do this week is practice being a revolutionary by doing the most wholesome thing you can think of: reading a book to a youngster you love. It's simply remarkable how many children's books (your favorites and mine) end up on these lists! What could be better for the next generation than encouraging them to read, to be lovers of books, and free thinkers?

Check out the list and share your favorites.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Almost Moon

Alice Sebold is making a pretty good career for herself writing about miserable situations - the murder of a child in The Lovely Bones, her own rape in Lucky, and, in The Almost Moon, a daughter who kills her hateful and demented mother, perhaps hours before she would have died anyway.

I'm not giving anything away. The first sentence of this book was much ballyhooed when it first came out: When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.

Eventually the book gets around to describing how horrendous the main character's mother was, and presumably why she feels nothing like guilt over killing her, only a sort of inability to do anything about it.

I had heard that the book took place in one day, but that's not really true - she kills her mother in the evening, and the the book ends the next evening, so if you're looking for that neat little literary trick, you won't find it here.

I did not enjoy the book at all, and fell into my old habit of not being able to quit something I had started. What was really shocking was that the main character (whose name I can't remember) was so unbelievable, aside from not confronting what she had done, she was meant to be, I think 50 years old or so. She read like a 20 year old, and I think Sebold, in an effort to move into a more fictional milieu (she's been very open about how influenced her first two books were by her own life, and, furthermore, I heard her say in an interview that she has a very good relationship with her mother), was slightly out of her depth.

Willful Creatures


Willful Creatures is a book of short stories by Aimee Bender. I'm a big fan of Bender's Invisible Sign of My Own, which is probably up there in my top 10 books. As I recall, I read most of her previous book of short stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, which I didn't enjoy and have largely forgotten.

I read Willful Creatures for my book club, which continues to delight. I was curious about how convivial a book of short stories would be to our conversation, but, just like every book we've read, it was great. I lately find that a spirited conversation about books with friends is one of the finest conversations a person can have. Especially if it's coupled with lots and lots of wine.

Bender's writing style is often categorized as "magical realism" or "surreal". I'm a bit hesitant to put any label on it, but her work certainly, at times, reminds one of say, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Willful Creatures had several stories that just completely slayed me - particularly the one referred to on the cover, called "End of the Line" in which a man purchases as a pet a "little man", which he treats disrespectfully and abuses. I think there's an impulse to read her stories (especially those about children who are actually potatoes or have irons for a head, or keys for fingers) as symbols or replacements for some other thing or idea, but generally that line of thought doesn't hold true. For example, you can read "End of the Line" as an allegory for the ethical treatment of animals, because the man does threat his little man as carelessly as, sadly, too many people treat their pets, but it's not that simple. What Bender does is really create a world in which there are little men, little people, rather, and then explores how we live together.

Another stand-out was "Debbieland", written in the first person plural, which always give me a bit of a thrill. It's another painful story, about the cruelty of girls, and like the story of the little man, was deeply touching.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Happenstance

Happenstance, by Carol Shields, has a longer title: Two Novels in One About a Marriage in Transition. The book itself is something of a thrill - it is, literally, two novels in one book - from one side, it's the "Wife's Tale", flip it over, and you have the "Husband's Tale". Long did I flip the book, back and forth, back and forth - which to read first? I decided to start with the husband.

Both cover the same time frame - just a few days. The couple has been together for a long time - 20 years or so, and are spending a few days apart. What's interesting, is that even though the couple are apart, their thoughts often turn to the same subjects, but different interpretations. The husband is a historian, and very caught up in the small dramas of so many academics. He assumes that his wife's hobby/occupation (quilt-making) lacks the intellectuality of his own work, and even reduces her work to mere materiality (as if that's the lowest art form).


Because I read the wife's point-of-view second, there were some surprises - she's at a convention of craftspeople who argue the finer points of craftsmanship vs. art, functionality, labeling, delegation of women's work, and always with a laugh at words like, well, "craftspeople" and "craftsmanship", because the conference is composed of mostly women. Shield's descriptions of the Wife's quilts were wonderful, I really enjoyed imagining what they might look like. It's a very expressive book. Oh, and it takes place largely in Chicago, so that was fun for me.

How is it that the Canadian Shields writes so intimately about now two places that I have lived (Chicago in this book and Bloomington Indiana [of all places] in The Stone Diaries)? It's kind of amazing, right?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Persepolis

My graphic novel kick continues... recently finished Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by writer and artist Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis is a memoir of her childhood in Iran. Like the wonderful Fun Home, this graphic novel is also occasionally funny, often poignant, and masterfully displayed in graphic image.

Satrapi lived through the beginnings of the "Islamic Revolution". Her graphic novel is sort of like Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, which does a great job of illustrating how Afghanistan was not always the stinking hellhole that we see on the news these days, but rather a vibrant, well-educated, multi-cultural land. Before the Taliban gained control, Iran was a fairly liberal society. Satrapi's liberal parents participated in protests until they became prohibitively dangerous, and continued to, you know, listen to music and drink and dance, even when these things became illegal.

Satrapi's panels relating to the abrupt change in the educational system were most interesting to me. While most children might go through a period of questioning their education, she experience a real indoctrination, and standing up to ask questions had serious consequences.

Coincidentally, Feministing recently addressed women graphic novelists. Not surprisingly, Alison Bechdel and Satrapi are high on everyone's list. Pia Guerra, co-writer and main illustrator of Y: The Last Man (which I've been borrowing from friends) also gets a few mentions. It's worth having a look at the comments if you're looking for graphic novel recommendations.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, had me really excited for the first 20 pages or so. It reminded me of The Handmaid's Tale (probably my favorite book), in that it takes place in some other time. I gleefully prepared to watch it all unravel as I read, but, unfortunately, very little unravelled and it utterly failed to keep my interest.

I won't go into the story line, just in case a reader has it on their list (although, if I were you, I'd scratch it off). I know this book was highly reviewed, which is the reason I picked it up when I saw it in the bargain bin. But, it's the kind of book that makes me want to call up all the reviewers and say, "Really, Michael Ondaatje? You seriously think Ishiguro is 'One of the finest prose stylists of our time'? Really?"

Aside from going nowhere, poorly, two things bugged me more than anything.

#1. The word "carer" (as in, "one who cares"). The beauty of writing a dystopian novel is you can make up any GD word you want to. The repetition of "Carer" was almost as bad as Anne Rice and her bullshit (and inappropriately used) "anthropomorphic" again and again.

#2. The font. I never thought this would matter, but the font really made me nuts. It was so distracting. You know when you get to the end of a book, and there's a paragraph "On the Font"? And you're like, who gives two craps about the font? For this book I actually skipped to that paragraph about 4 pages in to see if it said, "This font was specially created to stop the eye for approximately 20 seconds each time the letters "g" and "y" appear in succession. It'll happen more than you can imagine!"

Post Script: I just found a review by Margaret Atwood herself on Slate. She gives away the farm, so be aware. She writes, "It's a thoughtful, crafty, and finally very disquieting look at the effects of dehumanization on any group that's subject to it." Really, Margaret Atwood? Really?

And some snarky editor over at the Guardian wrote a hilarious parody of Never Let Me Go:
...I realise now how lucky Tommy, Ruth and I were to be brought up in such surroundings. We even had a sports pavilion where we would go to chatter amongst ourselves. You may wonder why I mention these details, but such empty observations are the hallmark of the consummate prose stylist....It may strike you that I like to hint at truths. This is because I fear you might stop reading were you to guess that the story really was as predictable as it first seemed.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1

We read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1, by Alan Moore for book club. It's a graphic novel about a group of characters, some of whom you'll recognize and some maybe not (we all know Jekyll and Hyde, but do you know where Allan Quatermain originated?). The plot largely centers around gathering this rag-tag group of hero-types in a team to do... something... on behalf of some unknown entity. I'm not quite sure what.

Because a few of these characters were recognizable to me, I had to wonder if there were some references I wasn't getting. I meant to do a little googling before the book club, but I didn't get around to it. Lo and behold, it turns out practically every single panel in the novel contains a reference to some 18th or 19th century British literature. Only slightly more interesting than the question "If a tree falls in the woods and no-one hears it..." is "If a book is full of literary references that no-one gets, does it matter?" I have a general formula that goes like this:

Given: I'm pretty smart.
Given: I read a lot.
Given: most people are kind of dumb.
Given: nobody reads as much as me.
Proof: If *I* didn't get it, nobody did.

(Does that make me sound like a jerk?) I didn't really enjoy reading the graphic novel, mostly because I wasn't interested in the story and its shtick (that it's written for young boys, ie, not girls [however ironicly]) wore a bit thin for me. I did gain some new respect when I found out it had all these hidden references, though. My proof is wrong, of course, because my super-genius librarian friends did get it.

Aforementioned super-genius tipped me to a book called Heroes and Monsters by Jess Nevins that, essentially panel by panel, goes through the novel and spells out what most of us schmucks are missing. I'm going to have a peek at that book, and a brief return to The League as well (wikipedia by my side) to have a second look at some of these references and maybe get some ideas for future reading.

A Mango-Shaped Space

A Mango-Shaped Space, by Wendy Mass, is a YA book about a girl with synesthesia. Synesthesia is a very interesting "neurologically-based phenomenon" in which a person's senses are combined in a different way from most of us. For example, most synesthetes experience letters as colors as well (like, maybe "B"s are a certain shade of green) or that tastes have sounds and so on.

I know a fair amount about synesthesia (I have another book called Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synesthetes Color Their Worlds, by Patricia Lynne Duffy). I think it's a fascinating condition and I'm interested in developing it myself, if such a thing is possible. A Mango-Shaped Space was a bit boring to me because it's explains from a very basic level what it's like to have this condition (from the perspective from a young girl). However, I suppose if you don't know much at all about synesthesia, it would be quite interesting. I'm sure also that young adults themselves would be rather moved by the book (because, beyond her condition, it's about a 13 year old who's sensitive and misunderstood).

Something I remain a bit confused about is that the book won the Schneider Family Book Award, which "honors an author or illustrator for the artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences." Whether or not synesthesia is a disability, I'm not convinced. In any event, the book certainly does not indicate that being a synesthete in any way limits the main character's abilities. In fact, it seems to be just the opposite - that her condition (for lack of a better word) is something that makes her unique and special and should be honored and respected.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Fun Home (A Family Tragicomic)

I read a chapter of Alison Bechdel's Fun Home in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007 (ed. Dave Eggers). Usually the Nonrequired books are filled with amazing things. The 2007 version was uneven, to say the least - but it had a couple of gems. The first is an essay by Conan O'Brien (a commencement address to a high school), which is worth the price of the book (or at least sitting down in your local bookstore for the 15 minutes it takes to read) and the second is that chapter that introduced me to Bechdel.

Fun Home is a memoir about Bechdel and her family. Her father was the director of a funeral home, and "fun home" was their nickname for the building. Bechdel's story-telling and artistry are really quite breathtaking. Fun Home chronicles her own awareness of her sexuality as a child and a young adult, and her growing understanding of her father's homosexuality, which was largely a shameful secret to him. Bechdel beautifully and honestly writes about her relationship with her father - a man who was not outwardly loving or affectionate, but intellectually challenging and in other ways, supportive.

Fun Home is one of those comic books that prove what a "high" art form they can be - Bechdel relates her story to James Joyce's Ulysses, and includes references to dozens of other books and influential works of literature. I found myself wanting to take notes to put together a hell of a reading list.

Bechdel also writes another strip - Dykes to Watch Out For - it looks like they're mostly online.

I'd recommend Fun Home to just about anyone - but especially comic book readers. It's a sensitive and amazing story, and I think she proves how useful the medium is for memoirs!

The Bean Trees

I was not very impressed by The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver (1988). I think her Poisonwood Bible is close to brilliant, and now I don't know whether or not to read Pigs in Heaven, which is sitting on my shelf (any opinions?)

The Bean Trees is about a young woman who, for no particular reason, decides to leave her hometown in Kentucky for parts unknown. On her journey, she congratulates herself for not getting pregnant in high school, changes her name, and is given a nameless child by strangers during a brief stop. She keeps her.

Her car breaks down in Arizona (where Kingsolver lives) and there she stays, getting by with the help of kindly locals who spill out homespun advice. I am not a fan of proffered hillbilly homilies given as if they were incredibly wise nuggets of truth. With about one per page, these statements made me gag again and again. "Everybody deserves her own piece of the pie", "If the truth was a snake, it would have bit me" and so on...


At times the book approaches a kind of Tales of the City sort of philosophy - in that what it's really "about" is people choosing less traditional lifestyles, raising their children in different ways, and creating a matriarchal society for themselves. But while Tales of the City is really interesting and compelling, I wasn't really interested in the characters of The Bean Trees.

Because there's essentially no plot, the book really drags through the middle, and I found myself turning more than one page at a time to make it through to the end. Quite disappointing.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Murder in the Dark

I just finished another book of short stories by Margaret Atwood called Murder in the Dark. These are short, short stories, and I finished the slim volume in a matter of hours all together, but it really took several days because after each story I had to close it and think about it for a while.

This 1983 book blew my mind kind of like her more recent Moral Disorder did. It's strongly feminist (natch), with a lot of rather virulent (but right on) reactions to patriarchy. "Simmering" is a story about men taking over the kitchens of the world (it begins, "It started in the backyards.") and then turning cooking into a masculine act and a type of supremacy. As if to say, it doesn't matter if we change the traditional gender roles, men will find a way to turn it into a power play.

Several stories, like "Women's Novels" and "Happy Endings" address books and the reading and writing of books. If the term chick lit had been invented then, it would have been in "Women's Novels", where Atwood brilliantly plays with simple language in a way that's both hilarious and insightful:
Men's novels are about men. Women's novels are about men too but from a different point of view. You can have a men's novel with no women in it except possibly the landlady or the horse, but you can't have a women's novel with no men in it. Sometimes men put women in men's novels but they leave out some of the parts: the heads, for instance, or the hands. Women's novels leave out parts of the men as well. Sometimes it's the stretch between the belly button and the knees, sometimes it's the sense of humour. It's hard to have a sense of humour in a cloak, in a high wind, on a moor.

When You are Engulfed in Flames

When You are Engulfed in Flames is the latest book of short stories/essays by David Sedaris. I'm a big Sedaris fan, so I broke down and bought the hardcover, which I usually don't do, but I couldn't wait. Possibly it is better to wait for the softcover, but it's a very enjoyable read. Not nearly as laugh-out-loud funny as Me Talk Pretty One Day, but not as mournful as ... oh, I forget which one... where he writes about his mother dying.

I'd already read several of the essays in various other publications - The New Yorker and GQ and so on. Because they were great stories, I was thrilled to read them again. The best is probably "Cry Baby" about his seatmate on a plane crying throughout his journey. And the last third or so of the book is about his three-month trip to Japan to quit smoking. It's beyond self-indulgent, but that's also partly the point.

My favorite essays were the ones that made me laugh and then surprised me at the end by turning the table toward seriousness, like "Cry Baby" or "All the Beauty You Will ever Need" which address a certain view of homosexuality:
It's astonishing the amount of time that certain straight people devote to gay sex - trying to determine what goes where and how often. They can't imagine any system outside their own, and seem obsessed with the idea of roles, both in bed and out of it. Who calls whom a bitch? Who cries harder when the cat dies? Which one spends more time in the bathroom? I guess they think that it's that cut-and-dried, though of course it's not. Hugh might do the cooking, and actually wear an apron while he's at it, but he also chops the firewood, repaires the hot-water heater, and could tear off my arm with not more effort than it takes to uproot a dandelion.

You know what I find most curious about this book? At the end there's an "About the Author" paragraph which reads:
David Sedaris's half-dozen books have been translated into twenty-five languages, including Estonian, Greek, and Bahasa. His essays appear frequently in The New Yorker and are heard on Public Radio International's This American Life.
I just find that so odd. Do you think he wrote that himself? Bahasa? What the hell is that?

BTW, the cover art is from a less-well known painting by van Gogh - so, you see, he did have a little sense of humor!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Infidel

Infidel is an autobiography by Ayaan Hirsi Ali - you may have heard of her. She was born in Somalia, and eventually moved to The Netherlands as a refugee where she met the director Theo van Gogh. They made a short film together and he was killed by a Muslim extremist. (I'm not ruining the book, by the way - aside from being all over the news, that's all spelled out in the first few pages.)

The first part of Hirsi Ali's book describes her life growing up in Africa. She had a pretty terrible childhood, and it's rather agonizing to read. I don't really like her writing style, which sort of goes like, and then this terrible thing happen, and then this terrible thing happened, and then this terrible thing happened...

I think she spent so much time describing her horrendous childhood for two reasons - she's trying to illustrate how difficult life is for young girls and women in the various Muslim countries and communities she lived in, and also because (she's very upfront about this) she lied in her process to get refugee status in The Netherlands, and was trying to justify her right to be there.

The second half of the book explains her experience in Holland, her intellectual awakening, her feminist awakening, and her entry into politics. Particularly after 9/11, she starts to question Islam. She writes:
I didn't want to do it, but I had to: I picked up the Quran and the hadith and started looking through them, to check. I hated to do it, because I knew that I would find Bin Ladin's quotations in there, and I didn't want to question God's word.

While so many in the west were concerned about a general backlash against Muslims and all basically all Middle Easterners, she holds that it's not a faith of peace, but a faith that's rooted in violence and, in practice, not only tolerates but encourages treating women badly and beating children. Again, she writes:
Most Muslims never delve into theology, and we rarely read the Quran; we are taught in in Arabic, which most Muslims can't speak. As a result, most people think that Islam is about peace. It is from these people, honest and kind, that the fallacy has arisen that Islam is peaceful and tolerant...True Islam, as a rigid belief system and a moral framework, leads to cruelty.

I'm all for questioning organized religion. Hirsi Ali rightly points out that the messages of religious texts we have today have been heavily influenced for centuries by the writings of men. Her message, that Islam is wrong, strikes me (who has a small amount of respect for the freedom of religion) as a simplistic response to outrageously complex reasons for violence in various societal groups. The fact that she now works for a right wing "think tank" in Washington DC (that also boasts Newt Gingrich as a "fellow") makes me wonder what her intentions really are. She certainly is for more integration of immigrants into the lands where they immigrate - but is she for the dissolution of Islam?

She's supposedly motivated by improving the lives of Islam women. How Feminism and ultra-conservativism got so mixed up, I'll never understand. But, no matter how frustrating I found her book, she made me think about these issues a little more. Even though I think she's a little bit of a crackpot, she did make me question a few of my own opinions about these issues.

Here's the short film she made with van Gogh. It's about 10 minutes long.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Small Ceremonies

Small Ceremonies (1976) is by Carol Shields, author of one of my favorite books, The Stone Diaries. If you haven't read The Stone Diaries, I implore you, get thee to a bookstore (especially if you're from Indiana). Although I like just about everything she's written, her other work hasn't wowed me like 'Diaries - until now!

Small Ceremonies is a short book, with chapters split by months (less than a year) of a woman's life. During this time, Judith, a wife, mother and author, grapples with a couple of life's mysteries (which I'll let you read for yourself). What I found so exciting about Small Ceremonies was how this woman, even though she's, you know, kind of old-ish, is still asking herself questions about her own art (writing biographies), discovering that deconstructionist truth that you can never really sum up a life in something so simple as words on a page (the same is true in Shield's book!)

With a strong feminist view, a lot of humor and a theoretical look at the art of writing, this intellectually stimulating book rivals that old favorite of mine (which won the Pulitzer Prize, if you need more convincing).

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Running with Scissors

Read Running with Scissors: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs for my new book club. A few days before I started reading it, I got my hair done, and the girl who dried my hair was nuts about A. Burroughs, and told me what a great writer he was and how he's like David Sedaris, only better. I'll tell ya, he ain't no David Sedaris. Where Sedaris is a great writer, hilarious, cultured, and sentimental without being cloying, Burroughs is ham-fisted, dull, and not at all funny. I dont' know why people are always going on about how hysterical it is - I never so much as cracked a smile.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Misquoting Jesus

I've been wanting to read Misquoting Jesus ever since I heard a great interview on NPR with the author, Bart Ehrman, on Fresh Air. Ehrman is a Biblical scholar, or textual critic, as he calls himself. He explains in the book (and the radio interview) how he used to be very religious - a "born-again" Christian, who, like many Christians, believed that the Bible was the inspired word of God, which was transmitted to the original writers of the New Testament and written down by them. Ehrman explains in the introduction his own sort of unravelling spiritual journey, where the more he learned about the Bible as a Christian scholar the less reliable a text he found it to be.

The main thesis of the Misquoting Jesus is that the Bible, as we know it, has gone through a fairly ridiculous number of changes since the original, which doesn't even exist any more. Ehrman figures the earliest copies available to us are something like copies of copies of copies of copies of copies, and even when comparing early copies, he and other textual critics have found vast discrepancies between copies. Whether purposefully or ignorantly, scribes of various books of the Bible have made mistakes as they copied, by hand. He illustrates the various reasons these mistakes might have been made, and their humorous or shocking results - for example - turns out that famous line and it's accompanying story, "He that's without sin should throw the first stone" is totally made up. Meaning, it's not in the early, reliable copies, and shows up out of nowhere in a later manuscript, and gets integrated into later versions.

I was quite interested to learn more about this early history of the Bible and how it was created, who read it, how people read, and how people wrote. I think for the most part Ehrman writes a clear history, although he doesn't really write about the history of the Old Testament at all, just the New, and, I should think anyone without a decent background in Christian theology might be sort of lost. In some areas, I wished he given a more thorough bibliography. A few of times I found myself wondering exactly which sources he was talking about, and where they were and who had access to them, for example. Another thing I found slightly annoying was that there were some really bad copies of images from early manuscripts. In my work at the Art Inst. I saw some amazing early manuscripts, and they're full of incredible colors and gilt - color illustrations would have been beautiful - the black and white was worthless.

It seems that Ehrman might have been trying to balance writing a widely appealing book and writing a scholarly book. Essentially he's writing a deconstructionist's analysis of the Bible with a fair amount of semiotics thrown in, without ever using the words "deconstruction" and "semiotics". Ultimately, Ehrman's point of view is that to read anything is to change it - because when you read something, you process it in your own mind, into your own understanding of language and your own world view, in a way that you can understand. Early scribes who changed the Bible for whatever reasons simply physically manifested this principle in their copy jobs. It's a principle that doesn't just apply to the Bible, but actually anything you read (or see or hear...)

Misquoting Jesus answered a lot of questions I had about the process the Bible went through in the early C.E.. I'm also from a background where the Bible is meant to be the unquestioned, inerrant word of God, and that was a frustrating, aggravating point of view for me, and it was somehow very satisfying to read a book that explained why there are so many inconsistencies and oddities in it.

To be clear, I don't think reading this book is going to turn you into an atheist, or necessarily radically alter your beliefs - but, it's sure to make all readers do some deep thinking, and what could be wrong with that?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ophelia

I'm a big fan of Shakespeare. I've studied his work, I've taken multiple Shakespearean acting classes - I'll watch any play, I've been to Stratford. I've been to the Globe. I love it when people do interesting things with his plays, like set them in various time periods, play around with costumes, with gender roles - whatever - I love it all - because his work is so transcendent - his themes are timeless.

So, when I saw Ophelia, by Lisa Klein, I thought - why not? The back of the book told how it was a "reimagining" of Hamlet and read blah blah blah In desperation, Ophelia devises a treacherous plan to escape from Elsinore forever... with one very dangerous secret. That could only mean one thing - that somehow Ophelia does not drown, but rather skips town, pregnant with Hamlet's baby.

Spoiler alert: that's exactly what happens.

Hamlet, the play, is like the perfect story - it begins and ends at the perfect time. It begins: Hamlet's dad is dead, everything's in turmoil - it begins with a question: Who's there? It ends with one hell of curtain drop: everybody's dead. One of the big problems with Ophelia is that it starts way before the perfect beginning, and it ends way after the proper ending. It's unfortunate that Ophelia, like most of the women in Shakespeare's plays, has little character development. It's natural to want to tell more of her story, but I think where Klein goes wrong is trying to hard to match her novel to the play (there are some really lame bits, where, for example, Ophelia might wander by someone and overhear them saying something like, "The play's the thing!") whereby it's necessary for Hamlet and Ophelia to merely pretend that they are "mad." It felt as if she were fighting too hard against the play instead of just moving ahead with her own narrative.

In Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, he works with the play, not struggling to explain or work around the difficult sections, but embracing them for all their absurdity.

About half way through, it occurred to me that maybe Ophelia was meant to be a YA book, which, it turns out, it is. I don't necessarily think that a book that's meant for younger people is or should be inherently more simple or readable, and it irks me that this simple book is meant for teens. A dumbed-down version of Shakespeare benefits no one. I wouldn't recommend it to either young or older readers, simply because it's not intellectually satisfying. It doesn't elaborate on the themes of Hamlet, it doesn't offer new ideas, and the plot's beyond dumb.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Household Saints

Household Saints (1981) is a lovely little novel by Francine Prose. I've also read Prose's Blue Angel, which was supposed to have been titillating but I found completely forgettable. It turns out the most titillating bit was the cover.

Really good cover.

Household Saints is about a group of Italian-Americans, religion, superstition, food, and family. I love reading about other cultures, and this book neatly fit the bill. The characters are those imperfect yet lovable galoots - the main character is a cheating butcher who plays pinochle, you get the idea...

The book manages to transcend mere problems with the mother-in-law, and Prose's ... uh, prose is simple and elegant. What I found interesting was how religion and spirituality played out in the book. Within one family, the daughter is very religious, but the parents are not, causing some conflict. The extent of their religion (they are not a-religious) was never really in question until they had a saint-like daughter. Having a saint-like daughter makes them both more and less religious than they were before.

While religion is a major theme in Prose's book, it's not a morality tale (Thank God! - ha) and doesn't read like (heaven forbid [somebody stop me!]) Christian lit.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Book of Other People

The Book of Other People is a book of short stories edited by Zadie Smith. Smith writes in her introduction that the only guideline was to "make somebody up" and that the writers donate the stories on behalf of 826 New York, to whom all the proceeds of sale go, apparently. If you're not familiar with the various 826 organizations, you really should check it out. It's an amazing program to help young people, and to stir the creative juices. It was started by Dave Eggers, and, not surprisingly, he and and a lot of other hot young writers (what I wouldn't give to be part of that social group) are featured in The Book of Other People.

Unlike Atwood's Moral Disorder, which, to me, called out to be read front to back, The Book of Other People is merely arranged by character's name, and can be read in any random order without fear upsetting any balance. Skip ahead to A. M. Homes's Cindy Stubenstock, a fabulous story about Ladies Who Buy Art - delicious sort of name-dropping stuff that really made me laugh:
   "We're going from day to night - swapping all the black paintings for white, we sold the Motherwells and the Stills and now she's bringing in Ryman, Richter and a Whiteread bookcase."
    "Sounds great - very relaxing - no color at all."
    "I heard you bought a Renoir in London."
    "We had a good year. I like it so much I want to fuck it."
    "When we got our Rothko - we had sex on the floor in front of it."
Skip the Nick Hornby, it doesn't make any sense. There are several tales told in graphic novel style - one by Daniel Clowes and the other by C. Ware - both terrific.

I'm crazy about Smith's Hanwell Snr, which I wrote about after it was published in the New Yorker. It's worth the price of the book, if you ask me.

Moral Disorder

Moral Disorder (2006) is a book of short stories by perhaps my favorite author, Margaret Atwood. I love her novels, but after reading The Tent and The Penelopiad, I've gained a greater appreciation for her shorter work.

Moral Disorder is a slightly unusual set of short stories because they share a through-line of one character. They are not in "order" of this woman's life, but jump around from various points, and, at times, even spring unexpectedly into the distant past. I thought it was interesting that she chose to write this woman's story in pieces (and how, anyway, can you really sum up a life in 250 pages?) Sometimes I like to skip around when I'm reading short stories, but these were kind of fun to read in order - it seemed that even though they were not chronological, that there was some reason they were in that order.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Hard Times

There's a great article in Bitch magazine, Hard Times by Sarah Seltzer, that addresses the disparity of books by women and reviews by women vs. books and reviews by men in the NYT Book Review. She also lists some misogynist comments by reviews to recent feminist books - the sort of knee-jerk reactions to everyday feminism that we'd like to think the Times would be above. She quotes Toni Bentley’s review of Katha Pollitt’s Learning to Drive:
“An enraged, educated woman (Vagina dentata intellectualis)…is a force to be reckoned with, a kind of intellectual Mike Tyson—though, apparently, she is still not as likely to be seduced into bed as the bombshell bimbo, one reason she’s so irate.”
Vagina dentata intellectualis! Excuse me while I change the name of my blog!

I read a lot of book reviews, and I listen to a fairly ridiculous amount of short stories and fiction on my 'pod, and let me tell you - the number one complaint, the perhaps single complaint I have is that there are not enough women writers being recognized. I don't know why people think "feminism" is such a dirty word - they love to be the first to act like a feminist is some crazy, hair-covered woman likely to fly off the handle. At its most basic, it's just about equality. Like most feminists, Seltzer is just asking for a level playing field.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Venus

It's not easy to read plays. For the most part, they're meant to be seen on stage, and reading them requires a lot of imagination, a different pace from novels, and a modicum of theatre know-how (I can't tell you how many times I've heard people read the character's name before the line).

But, I find reading plays very rewarding - particularly Shakespeare, which benefits from multiple readings, and plays that I want to see, plays that I saw once and want to recreate in my mind...

Venus, Suzan-Lori Parks' play about the so-called Venus Hottentot, is particularly challenging to read because so much is left to the stage directions, or what Parks calls "unconventional theatrical elements" in her note at the beginning. She differentiates between a rest and a spell, and there are frequent passages in the text that read just the characters names and no lines:
The Venus
The Chorus of the Spectators
The Venus
The Chorus of the Spectators
The Venus
The Chorus of the Spectators
The Venus
The Chorus of the Spectators

She also uses inventive spelling (it sometimes read like a text message) to indicate accents or perhaps pace - things that may or may not translate to the stage, but are interesting to read:
The Chorus of the Court
Outrage! Ssanoutrage!
Outrage! Ssanoutrage!
(Order order order order.)


I thought these choices were quite interesting because the play is essentially about looking (if you're unfamiliar with the sad and true story of Saartjie Baartman, she was an African woman who was essentially kidnapped and taken to Europe where she was the object of various vaudevillian/circus freak shows. People paid to look at her and extra to touch her. Even after she died, her pubic area was kept on display in a museum and only buried after repeated appeals from her own country and people.) From an academic point of view, the Venus is really a classic case of the objectified woman - and, beyond that, an African woman. Parks explores this low-point of history and its many aspects - the "other", the non-humanizing, the hyper-sexualizing of the African woman, the pseudo-science applied to non-European standards of beauty, the complicitness of the crowd... the list goes on. I would be interested to see this show on stage one day. Has anyone seen it?