Tuesday, December 30, 2008


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.

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.