Thursday, December 17, 2009

Points of View

Points of View (1956) is an anthology of short stories I've had at my bedside for about a year now. The stories are arranged by point of view - Interior Monologue, Dramatic Monologue, Diary Narration, Subjective Narration, etc, which will prove uninteresting for those of us who have been reading for a while but might be interesting for young readers. There are, nevertheless, a few great short stories in it - A And P, by John Updike, which improves with every reading - really fantastic story about a young man working at the A And P in a tourist town. The eery The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson, which I just heard for the first time myself on one of my podcasts (I forget, either New Yorker: Fiction or Selected Shorts, both are terrific and you should subscribe if you haven't already. I like to listen to them at night if I'm too tired to read with my eyes.) Jackson's story sticks with you long after you wish you had forgotten it!

I'd been reminded of Flowers for Algernon recently when I read Push. Rereading Daniel Keyes's story confirmed for me that there are some similarities in the two stories, although, of course, Precious is responsible for her own growing knowledge, not some artificial means.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend this particular anthology, but I do love some of these classic short stories.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What Are You Like?

I discovered Anne Enright about a year ago. The Gathering really moved me, and The Wig My Father Wore was a fun literary experience for me.

On a recent trip to NY, we hit our favorite book store - The Strand - for which I had specifically left space in my suitcase. I spied a copy of The Gathering for my friend and What Are You Like? for myself. Like her other books, Enright's incredible prose is relentlessly invigorating. It's easy to get lost in the way she combines words - I think she benefits from multiple readings.

What are you like begins with a fairy-tale-like story of a pregnant woman who tries to undo things - "She pulled him to her every night, as though to make children where there was already a child, as though to unmake the child and let it swim away."
There was a kind of pleasure to it that he had not seen in her before, never mind the crockery in the hot press, the cutlery in bed. The house filled up with unread books, and she sang to the radio as she cleaned.

After that thrilling beginning (Enright has incredible pacing), the book focuses on two seemingly unrelated young women on somewhat similar paths. As the title suggests, she explores why people do the things they do. Themes of identity and nationality emerge:
She took a baby clam on the end of her fork and look at it. So this was who she was. She was a person who picked at her food. She picked at her food because she was a woman. She picked at her food because she was English, because she was Irish. She picked at her food because she was a Capricorn, because when she was a baby she had choked on a on a spoonful of puréed parsnip, because she was a famine gene, or a food-picking gene, or because when she was young her mother told her to sit up straight and not wolf her food. She picked at her food because she was middle class.

It's a lovely book. I suggest reading it. Twice.

Check it out! There's a preview on Google Books:

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood's latest book is The Year of the Flood, a follow-up, in a way, to her 2003 Oryx and Crake.

I did not enjoy Oryx and Crake (you should not consider it a prerequisite), but I did enjoy The Year of the Flood very much. It tells the story, going back and forth in time, of the "waterless flood" - an apocalyptic moment in time that lead to a massive devastation in population. The main character are "God's Gardeners" - a group of people who anticipate the approaching deluge and live off the land, as much as that is possible in a barren landscape. Motivated by a quasi-religion, the doctrine of which is modified along the way to reinforce their teachings (much like, hey, lots of religions!) and make up songs to remind them which weeds and mushrooms are edible.

One of the major themes of the book is food - how over-processed and dubious it is before the flood, how people either eat it or avoid it, like the Gardeners, and how after the flood, there's nothing available but dwindling supplies of pre-packaged food and animal meat, if you've got what it takes to kill the animal. Not surprisingly, a fair number of Gardeners survive, but find it necessary to overcome their strict vegetarianism.

Atwood seems to ascend to no less than visionary status with The Year of the Flood. I read her descriptions of a popular food chain called "Secret Burger" at the same time I was discovering that some yogurt and orange juice brands are not vegetarian (come ON!). I found myself thinking, IS milkweed edible? I'd better pay attention to that rhyme!

Ultimately I found Atwood's book thought-provoking and positive. Lucky for me, my whole reading experience was enhancing by having recently seen her read from the book. What an inspiration she is (not to mention she's 70 years old and writes with such freshness of language!) Here's one of my favorite passages:

Surely I was an optimistic person back then, she thinks. Back there. I woke up whistling. I knew there were things wrong in the world, they were referred to, I'd seen them in the onscreen news. But the wrong things were wrong somewhere else.

By the time she'd reached college, the wrongness had moved closer. She remembers the oppressive sensation, like waiting all the time for a heavy stone footfall, then the knock at the door. Everybody knew. Nobody admitted to knowing. If other people began to discuss it, you tuned them out, because what they were saying was both so obvious and so unthinkable.

We're using up the Earth. It's almost gone. You can't live with such fears and keep on whistling. The waiting builds up in you like a tide. You start wanting it to be done with. You find yourself saying to the sky, Just do it. Do your worst. Get it over with. She could feel the coming tremor of it running through her spine, asleep or awake.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Pictorial Webster's

Pictorial Webster's is getting a lot of press as a charming book. The book itself is beautiful, and the idea is good, but I'm not sure I was utterly charmed by it.

The book features illustrations from early versions of Webster's - copies of engravings and some etchings. It's organized alphabetically, with 20 or so pages devoted to each letter. I LOVE that type of illustration, with repeated lines for shading. But, I thought they chose odd images. It's full of pictures of fish and birds and insects. Listen, you need one fish, under F, one bird, B. Seriously. There were also oddly a handful of images regarding medieval torture devises, like pillories and stocks and a disturbing "ducking stool" which features a woman waving jauntily as if she's on a Ferris wheel.

The back features some rudimentary information re: printing processes, which will probably be somewhat interesting to general audiences (but not me, harrumph). In any event, I'm glad I just borrowed it from the library instead of purchasing it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Gate at the Stairs

Lorrie Moore's new book, A Gate at the Stairs, is her much anticipated novel and is getting great reviews for good reason. I started reading it and 20 pages in thought: This can't go on! She writes so beautifully, with so much wit and pleasure in language - and it does go on - she maintains this absolutely brilliant tone and language throughout the whole book.

A Gate at the Stairs is about a young college student who gets a job as a nanny, ostensibly. But what it's really about, and I don't think I'm ruining it for you, is what it's like to be a young college student. And more specifically, a mid-western college student - a subject rather dear to my heart, as I myself was but a lithe, young, art history major a mere mumblemumble years ago. Moore captures Midwestern Culture (you may laugh, but, it's does exist) with all it's feigning humbleness and linguistic creativity:
Prepositions mystified. Almost everyone said "on" accident instead of "by." They said "I'm bored of that" or "Wanna come with?" They pronounced "milk" to rhyme with "elk" and "milieu" as "miloo," as in skip to my loo - when they said it at all. And they used tenses like "I'd been gonna." As in, "I'd been gonna to do that but then I never got around toot." It was the hypothetical conditional past, time and intention carved so obliquely and fine that I could only almost comprehend it, until, like Einstein's theory of relativity, which also sometimes flashed cometlike into my view, it whooshed away again, beyond my grasp... Who else on earth spoke like this? They would look at the tattoo on my ankle, a peace sign, and, withholding judgment but also intelligence, say, "Well, that's different." They'd say the same thing about my electric bass. Or even the acoustic one - That's different! - and in saying it made the same glottal stop that they made pronouncing "mitten" and "kitten."

Moore skewers the misdirected good intentions of a group of well-meaning but ridiculous adopted parents of multi-ethnic children in a series of interactions only overheard by the nanny, upstairs, watching a brood of interracial children. Those parts were exhilarating - Moore really sets an incredible pace in this story.
"'I Been Working on the Railroad.' I've heard her sing that. There's just two things I'm worried about with that: the grammar and the use of slave labor."

I wasn't sure I was hearing things correctly. Her sense of humor was still not always explicit or transparent of of a finely honed rhythm, and it sometimes left me not in the same room with it but standing in the hall. The words "You're serious?" flew out of my mouth.

"Kind of." She looked rigth through me. "I'm not sure." And then she went upstairs, as if to go figure it out. When she came back down she added, "Correct subject-verb agreement is best when children are learning language, so be careful what you sing. It's an issue when raising kids of color. A simple grammatical matter can hold them back in life. Down the road."

While Moore's book reads like a structured story, it's really not - what you think is the main plot is not, themes emerge and then gently fade back, following not that pleasing arch of the classic story, but the one we're all more familiar with: the unpredictable twists of everyday life. I think Moore's a real deconstructionist at heart - and just as I was forming that theory, she verified it for me:
What had I learned thus far in college? You can exclude the excluded middle, but when you ride through, on your way to a lonely and more certain place, out the window you'll see everyone you've ever known living there.

I had also learned that in literature - perhaps as in life - one had to speak not of what the author intended but of what a story intended for itself. The creator was inconvenient - God was dead. But the creation itself had a personality and hopes and its own desires and plans and little winks and dance steps and collaged intent. In this way Jacques Derrida overlapped with Walt Disney. The story itself had feet and a mouth, could walk and talk and speak of its own yearnings!

I learned that there had been many ice ages. That they came and went. I learned there were no mammals original to New Zealand. I learned that space was not just adrift with cold, flammable rocks. Here and there a creature was riding one, despite the Sufic spinning of the rock. The spores of lightless life were everywhere. I think I learned that.

It's one of the finest books I've read this year and I'd recommend it to ALL my Midwestern friends and anyone who's looking for a really incredible read. You won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

People of the Book

People of the Book is Geraldine Brooks' latest novel, recently released in paperback. Brooks won the Pulitzer a few years ago for March (pov: the dad of the Little Women). I didn't read it but I gave it to my sister and she was totally ga-ga over it.

People of the Book's premise was very appealing to me - rare book expert examines ancient Jewish text - neatly combining my love of things Paper and things Jewish History.

Brookses' story is loosely based on the real-life story of the 14th c. Sarajevo Haggadah - an illustrated Jewish prayer book (the fact that it's illustrated in "Christian" style is quite unique) that was only somewhat recently in human history re-discovered. In the book, the paper conservator examines the book, finding a few anomalies (a hair, several fluid residues, a bit of insect wing) which she unravels as far as she can. Interspersed with these histories are the stories of the people who handled/protected/guarded the book. If I'm remembering correctly, each story is first-person pov narrative.

Brooks tells the story in a backward narrative, from finding the person to the previous owner and so on until (no surprise) its creator. That particular structuring didn't work for me, I thought it was ambitious and I appreciate that. What Brooks seems to excel at, beside wonderful storytelling and a few great ideas, is capturing the voice of a variety of characters, not afraid to find the simplicity in some characters' language, and the poetry of intellectual thought in another. Explores Jewish mystisicm and kabala (a similar theme is found in another great book about language: Bee Season come to play. She writes:
It was in the still of the early hours, when the stars blazed in the black sky, that it happened. His fasting, the chill, the brilliant flare of the lamp; suddenly the letters lifted and swirled into a glorious wheel. His hand flew across the parchment. Every letter was afire. East character raised itself and danced spinning in the void. And then the letters merged into one great fire, out of which emerged just four, blazing with the glory of the Almighty's holy name. The power and the sweetness of it were too much for Ben Shoushan, and he fainted.
A reoccurring theme throughout the book is how how the book, the Haggadah, was created under the influence of multiple cultures and religions, and how both the past and future are guided and protected by the cooperation of seemingly incompatible relationships. Brooks illustrates the power of books to connect us and provide common ground in an engaging and challenging way.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Margaret Atwood

This weekend we saw Margaret Atwood read from her new novel, The Year of the Flood at DePaul’s Merle Reskin Theatre. It was so exciting to see her - she's one of my favorite authors and I think she's an absolute genius. The reading was very unusual - there was a choir and a small band and a group of three actors. Atwood and the three actors took turns reading from the text and the choir sang the songs that are part of the book.

The songs were of that rather horrible Sunday-morning-on-tv evangelical crap that's really cheesy and not what I'd call "good". I'm quite sure that the music was meant to be ironic because a certain faction of the characters are called God's Gardeners and I believe they're meant to have a sort-of extremist attitude which I'm sure Atwood doesn't let off the hook easily. She looked like an indulgent granny watching this rather rag-tag group of (I believe) DePaul students singing along to her verses. I really appreciated hearing the songs, even though I didn't enjoy the music, because it will be nice, when I read the book, to know what kind of sound they were meant to have.

I think it was a very clever idea to share the reading with the actors, giving the almost 70-year-old Atwood's voice a break. And, let's face it, not all great writers are great readers (although Atwood was very good - very funny, very dry, just like you'd expect.) The tour is going around the world, and actors and singers are found in each host city, making each performance unique. According to my playbill, all proceeds were donated to environmental groups.

Afterward she signed books - I'd taken my old Handmaid's Tale - my favorite book of all-time! and she signed it for me while I swooned.

I can't wait to get my copy through inter-library loan (I'm more and more opposed to buying books in hardback.) The idea of a waterless flood has been intriguing me.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

How to Help your Child Grow Up

So, we've been helping M's gran clean out her house, and she gave us a number of books. A couple of them, I hate to tell you, I took for the sole intention of mocking them for their outdated information, such as How to Help Your Child Grow Up (Angelo Patri, 1948).

Aside from the ridiculous title (whether you "help" them or not, child are going to "grow up" - how about helping them "grow up to be emotionally intelligent"... or somethin'?), I found the book disturbing from the moment I opened the cover. Inside the flap is a montage of photos of shiny, happy, white people with little boys doing woodworking and little girls washing dishes. Turn a few more pages: To the Mothers of America's Children. To me, that says:
A. You fathers can go fuck off
B. Mother's of other countries, fuck off
C. Children from other counties, fuck off

Well, you don't need ME to do a critical analysis for you of the bizarre-o world of the American mid-century, where the acknowledged audience was white, middle-class, Christian, heterosexual and healthy. I found it rather alarming that, at over 300 pages, the book failed to address any real and quite common issues like illnesses, sexuality, or mental or physical challenges.

The author's advice varies from hilarious to downright dangerous. A bit that, by all rights, should have been titled "Dealing with Bullies" was instead called "Cowardice Can Be Cured" and speaks of the "shame" of a young Freddy who "couldn't not seem to hold his own." Parents are told to contact a physician because "cowardice" is most likely a glandular problem. (!!!)

I got a real kick out of the section on kids who have trouble sleeping at night because my sister's 2 year old has been having trouble with that lately. The mother (specifically) is encouraged to "put courage in it's [fear's] place. Teach such a child to say his prayers to himself when he wakes." There you go, C! Just teach that 2 year old to say his prayers!

It's only relatively recently in human history that mankind has acknowledged childhood as we do today. This book, with it bottom-of-the-barrel advice, reminds me that our grandparents and great-grandparents had few resources for raising their kids - perhaps this book was a major step forward in that it didn't advise people to beat the hell out of their kids when they misbehaved and send them out to work in the fields as soon as they were able. Thank god the bar's a little higher now.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Murder Room

After I posted a "meh" review to P.D. James's Children of Men, a gentle reader left a comment setting me straight P.D.'s sex and encouraged me to read one of her Adam Dalgliesh novels. When I saw The Murder Room, I snapped it up.

Alas, I didn't, uh, even finish The Murder Room, but I love that my guest commenter suggested it (check out her blog, Entre Deux Solitudes) and just because it's not my cup of tea, if you're into mysteries, you'd probably love it.

What I liked: It's really English. One of the characters was always talking about taking a walk on the "heath." It made me absolutely LONG for a walk on the heath, whatever heath is. Reminded me of, after reading The Mill on the Floss, wondering, what the hell is floss?

James's writing is sophisticated, and she never insults the reader. Her writing style (obviously not her topics) reminds me of Barbara Pym, who I've been enjoying lately. I think she's decidedly old-fashioned - I was actually surprised when one of the characters pulled out a cell phone, because I thought it took place much earlier than that.

What I didn't like: The pacing. It's a murder mystery, but the first hundred pages basically just introduces the characters with little action. It moves r.e.a.l.l.y. slow. Sometimes, I like a book with a slow pace, but, in this case I didn't. I ended up skimming and then skipping to the end.

It used to be almost impossible for me to put down a book - I felt like I was giving up on it, and myself. Lately it's merely difficult, but I can do it. When I don't enjoy a book, it gives me a thrill to pass it on to someone I think will enjoy it, or to leave it on a bench in a public place to let fate help it find a home. That's what I'll do with this one, tomorrow.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Going Nowhere


Ha!

Anybody going to read it? Personally, I think if she didn't have the decency to write it, I'm certainly not going to read it. I suppose I could hire someone to ghost-read it for me...

Friday, October 09, 2009

Push

Push is a novel I heard about some time ago and tried to sell my book club on. Most people were largely turned off by the description of the main character: 16, obese, illiterate, pregnant with the child of her father and sexual abused by her mother. I can respect that.

The funny thing is, I just read it a few days ago, and I read the whole damn book almost in one sitting and in less than 24 hours, and even though all those things (and more, I hate to tell you) are true about the main character, Precious (there's a movie by that name coming out soon), it was somehow uplifting and invigorating.

The author's (Sapphire) voice, and the voice she gives Precious is so strong and purposeful. Precious has slipped through the school system until grade 9 but is completely unable to read - when she finally finds a program that invests in her, her pleasure in reading, and the power she finds in reading and writing is awe-inspiring and thrilling. Sapphire writes the book largely from Precious's point of view, complete with colloquialisms and misspellings, and as Precious learns, the language becomes more and more refined. It reminded me, in a way, of the text of Flowers for Algernon, a manipulative story, but with a hell of a trajectory.

Precious is truly an ignorant person with some misplaced allegiances and horrifying impressions of what it is to be good, or lucky. For example, she categorizes everyone she meets by the shade of their skin. But through language and literature, she finds new heroes and even finds empowerment in her own language - what "push", as a verb, becomes is the necessity to find the power within herself to to break out of the horrible situation she lives in, and create a new world for herself and her children.

She say, "Write." I tell her, "I am tired. Fuck you!" I scream, "You don't know nuffin' what I been through!" I scream at Ms Rain. I never do that before. Class look shock. I feel embarrass, stupid, sit down, I'm made a fool of myself on top of everything else. "Open your notebook Precious." "I'm tired," I says. She says, "I know you are but you can't stop now Precious, you gotta push." And I do.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Wild Things

I picked up a (signed!) copy of The Wild Things by Dave Eggers at the movie, Where the Wild Things Are, last week. Mostly I bought the book because it was signed and I was excited. I honestly think Eggers is a literary hero, but I didn't really love this book. It's quite similar to the movie, and, perhaps more importantly, true to Maruice Sendak's book. (Eggers book is dedicated to Sendak, whom he calls "an unspeakably brave and beautiful man.")

Eggers fills in the blanks for us for Max - where he lives, his family situation, where the costume came from, what happens in the land of the Wild Things, the names of the Wild Things and their various insecurities.

What Eggers explores in the book is how Max is bridging that awkward period between being a child, with really no barometer for what's socially appropriate, to an adolescent that's becoming self-aware. Max's decision to return to his home (I don't think I'm ruining it for you) becomes a rejection of those things wild and a commitment to well, society. Whether it's a choice that any child makes, or a role that all children are simply forced to accept, I'm not sure - for Max, it's more like a choice between certain death and ... dinner.

I'm not sure if I'd necessarily recommend this book to anyone but die-hard Where the Wild Things Are and Eggers' fans, or perhaps pre-teens. Eggers' YA book was less appealing to this adult reader and I started skimming about half-way through. At 281 pages, I found it rather long, but it's certainly charming. Eggers is a poetic writer and therefore this is more than your average book-after-the-movie.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

The Little White Car


I picked up a copy of The Little White Car (2004) by Danuta de Rhodes at a library book sale. It was an advance copy, so maybe I was swayed by the effusive praise. It's a fine enough book but the storyline (I don't think I'm ruining it by writing) in which the main characters believes herself to have inadvertently killed Princess Diana with her little white car, is ridiculous, and it completely lacks poetry.

It's a pretty good book if you're looking for some kind-of mindless, fun weekend or vacation reading. The character is a young french woman, not unlike Bridget Jones in that she's fairly irresponsible and devil-may-care - she gets drunk a lot and is largely unconcerned about causing the death of Princess Diana.

There is one mildly-amusing post-coital scene:

'So...,' he said, looking away from her. 'It is over. Finished.'

'Yes,' she said. 'Goodbye.'

'We will never see each other again.'

'No. Probably not.'

'There must be no kiss goodbye, no final embrace.'

'Fine.'

'I mean, we have just been like ships in the night.'

'Yes. Off you go now.'

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A High Wind in Jamaica

A High Wind in Jamaica was our book club selection for this month. It's by Richard Hughes and was first published in 1929. It's a fascinating and troubling book because it explores the capacity for survival of a group of small children.

A British family are living in Jamaica, but the parents decide to send the children back to England after a hurricane because they think it will be a safer, less "savage" place for their children. On the journey, their ship is taken over by pirates, and through some Home Alone shenanigans, the children end up on the pirate ship, rather to the dismay of the pirates.

By today's standards, both the parents and the pirates possess abysmal child-caring skills, leaving the children to self-regulate and self-rule. In a nearly supervisor-less world, the children create their own set of rules and morality that most people would find quite different than the a priori mores of society.

Children's inherent lack of morality is something that really fascinates me and it was quite interesting, however disturbing, to read Hughes tale of these little kids. Throughout the book, he brings in a variety of animals, both domesticated and wild, as if to compare them to the children - but I think what becomes clear is that the children are (obviously) like neither animal nor (adult) person.

One of the cool things about book club is that everyone shows up not only with their own opinions about the book, but also, literally, their own versions of the book. I had the most recent printing with an intro by Francine Prose and cover with Henry Darger image, but friends had a copy from (I think) the 40s with color lithographs published under the original US title, "An Innocent Voyage" and another from the early 30s with absolutely fabulous one-color lithographs. If you read it, and I encourage you to, head to your local library and find the oldest copy you can get.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Club Dead

Despite plenty of grousing about the low-quality of Charlaine Harris's Dead Until Dark, I couldn't resist snagging another in the series when I saw it on the freebie pile at my fave coffee shop.

I think that Club Dead is the third in the Sookie Stackhouse series - it's kind of like the New Moon of the series because boyfriend vampire Bill is mostly absent. The plot's kind of too silly to go into, and parts definitely insulted my intelligence, but I will admit that it was quite a page-turner! Damn you, Charlaine Harris! Damn you!

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Daughter of Time

The Daughter of Time was written by Josephine Tey, the pen name of Elizabeth MacKintosh, a Scottish woman. She also wrote plays under the name Gordon Daviot, apparently.

The book begins with a lovely little quote: Truth is the daughter of Time. It is apt, because the story is about a detective who, during a hospital stay, takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of the "Princes in the Tower" - the tale of the two children of Edward the IV, long-rumored to have been murdered by Richard III.

The main character is lying bored out of his mind in a hospital bed with a broken leg when a friend brings by a pile of historical pictures to amuse him. Because he doesn't think Richard III has the face of a murderer, he begins delving into the story to find out what really happened. Daughter of Time is practically a theoretical treatise on the necessity of primary sources for all research and study. Tey makes a strong and damning argument that the history books most of us grew up with - one page per century/civilization are worthless nonsense.

Tey illustrates how our perception, regardless of validity or truth, is what really becomes history - she seems to have a very post-modern viewpoint of what we call history - particularly re: her rejection of the very linear way we organize the past:
...One was the kind of history book known as a Historical Reader. It bore the same relation to history as Stories from the Bible bears to Holy Writ. Canute rebuked his courtiers on the shore, Alfred burned the cakes, Raleigh spread his cloak for Elizabeth, Nelson took leave of Hardy in his cabin on the Victory, all in nice clear large print and in one-sentence paragraphs. To each episode went one full-page illustration.

The second-half of the book was a little boring for me - with the challenge of being restricted to the hospital room, out of necessity, her characters move into a sort of Socratic exchange, like, "So Richard the III couldn't possibly be responsible for the death of the two boys, could he?" "No, he couldn't have, because..." and so on.

Finally, what Tey focuses on is the persistence of false histories to masquerade as fact through incompetence (on the part of the chroniclers) and indifference (on the part of the audience). All in all, I thought it was a really amazing book, especially for anyone interested in history in general and British monarchs in particular.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Somehow David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men was recommended for my book club. I'd never read him before, and was actually little aware of his work. I think this book is surely a terrible introduction to his work, as everyone, including me, largely found it unbearable and nearly unreadable. I had to skip large portions of quite a few stories because I found them simply too depressing and repetitive.

Poor Wallace, now dead, writes about truly hideous men and I think he must have had the worst opinion of humankind anyone's ever had. He's worse than me! And that's bad. Someone at book club said he makes you see the worst side of yourself, and I think that's very true. I'm sorry for him that there will probably be no separating fiction from fact in his work. Even, I, well versed in the perils of associating biography and art, found myself assuming everything I read was an autobiography. Like Sylvia Plath and Van Gogh, that suicide will never go unmentioned.

When I first started reading the book - I kept making ridiculous proclamations like, This guy's a genius! This is the best thing I've ever read! Amazing! Simply Amazing! while my husband looked on, nonplused. Several of the stories in the beginning are really quite remarkable - especially the one about the boy on the diving board - and the interviews really are humorous (the one's that don't make you want to lock yourself in a closet) but largely I found the book to be the most self-indulgent literature I've ever read. And there's not a single person I would recommend it to.

All Other Nights

When I found out Dara Horn had a new novel, I got really excited, then I got sad, because I don't like to buy hardbacks, then I remembered that I work in a library and went and found it.

Horn's other two novels, In the Image and The World to Come are remarkable. They both touch of themes of art, imagery, history, and religion. I would recommend both of them right away to just about anyone.

All Other Nights is quite different than her first two novels. While I liked parts of it, overall, I felt it lacked the intellectualism of her previous books and I had to wonder if this book was a conscientious foray into the world of so-called popular fiction.

The new novel is about a Union soldier fighting during the Civil War and recruited to be a spy behind enemy lines. I generally find All Things Civil War ridiculously boring, so that may be what's clouding my judgment. What is interesting is that Horn's main character is Jewish, and one hears very little about the role of any Jewish persons in that period. Some of the characters and events are apparently inspired by many true stories. There's an "Author's Note" at the end that I'd almost recommend reading before the book.

One of the characters, for instance, is Judah P. Benjamin - the first Jewish Cabinet-member in the US and possibly the first Jewish senator in the US as well (apparently this other guy may or may not have been a Presbyterian?) Benjamin was a high-ranking official in the Confederate (you read that right) - Sec. of War, I believe. A bit incongruous, like a gay Republican... Horn explores the irony of a Jew supporting slavery, but I hate to say it lacks any subtlety.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

I wrote about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies back in March before it was released - before I read Pride and Prejudice (full stop.) (And loved it. The real one.)

I'm about 50 pages in and don't think I can read it any further. It's funny and all, but merely silly. Especially after having read quite recently the original, it doesn't have much to offer beyond the original gag - and def. after 50 pages in it's like Yeah, ok. I get it..

The book is something like 85% Austen and 15% zombies (or Seth Grahame-Smith), and he is, admittedly, clever at mixing in the zombies. The Bennet sisters are well trained in the "deadly arts" against the "strange plague" that's overtaken their village.

Compare, please:
... The dinner too was highly admired; and he begged to know which of his fair cousins the excellency of its cookery was owing.

Briefly forgetting her manners, Mary grabbed her fork and leapt from her chair onto the table. Lydia, who was seated nearest her, grabbed her ankle before she could dive at Mr. Collins and, presumably, stab him about the head and neck for such an insult. Jane and Elizabeth turned away so Mr. Collins would not see them laughing.

He was set right by Mrs. Bennet, who assured him with some asperity that they were very well able to keep a good cook, and that her daughters were too busy training to be bothered with the kitchen. He begged pardon for having displeased Mary. In a softened tone she declared herself not at all offended; but he continued to apologize for about a quarter of an hour.
to Austen's original:
The dinner too, in its turn, was highly admired; and he begged to know to which of his fair cousins, the excellence of its cookery was owing. But here he was set right by Mrs. Bennet, who assured him with some asperity that they were very well able to keep a good cook, and that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen. He begged pardon for having displeased her. In a softened tone she declared herself not at all offended; but he continued to apologise for about a quarter of an hour.
I often find the word "gimmicky" is over-applied to art and literature, but this is as gimmicky a book as you'll ever read. Honestly I think one or two chapters would have sufficed. Although you kind of have to admire someone who tackles the whole book. (By which I mean, you can momentarily admire it, but you don't have to read the whole damn thing.) One is certainly not impressed by off-shoots like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim: Mark Twain's Classic with Crazy Zombie Goodness, or Mr. Darcy, Vampyre.

Read the first three chapters, that's all you really need.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Watch Your Mouth

Watch Your Mouth is a 2002 novel by Daniel Handler (a.k.a. The Guy Who Wrote the Lemony Snicket books). It's quite a remarkable book and I really enjoyed reading it. Handler writes with an exhilarating tempo - he reminded me, at his best, of JD Salinger, but more generally of Philip Roth or Michael Chabon. Watch Your Mouth has a fascinating story, is crazy sexual, but best of all, is the way he structures the story. The first half is told like an opera (I'll leave the second half for you to discover). Even as he tells the story, he'll indicate this character should be a tenor, that a soprano and so on. He writes:
Because this is, you know, an opera. Fiction, like all operas: a lie, but a lie is sort of a myth, and a myth is sort of a truth. All summer long I was watching things happen with Cynthia Glass and her family that were melodramatic, heart-wrenching, and absurdly—truly—tragic.

The story is that of a young Jewish teenager who lives with his girlfriend, Cyn (read: Sin) and her family for a summer. The horny teenagers try to squeeze in as much sweaty sex as they can while ostensibly working summer jobs and writing papers. The parents and a brother are going through their own melodramas - and - there's a Golom. I love stories with Goloms in them. I'm reticent to say too much - I hope you'll read it yourself...

First chapter is here - let me know if you read/have read it, I'd love to hear your opinion! I'm definitely going to check out his other novels.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Children of Meh

I started reading Children of Men, but, at least for now, I'm not going to finish it. I think I'm about 30 pages in, but I don't like P.D. James's writing style very much. So far it's very on the nose - he's spelled out how no one in the world has been able to procreate for a generation or two, and no one knows why and what the whole world's psychiatric response has been. I find that kind of boring and wish things could unfold a little slower. It ain't no Handmaid's Tale, I'll tell ya that.

Correction: An alert reader informs me that P.D. is a woman! I'm very embarrassed!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Invisible Circus

I'm becoming quite the fan of Jennifer Egan - just read her first novel, The Invisible Circus (1995) and previously The Keep and Look at Me.

The Invisible Circus is her first novel (she's got some short stories too), and was made into a movie with Cameron Diaz (I haven't seen it). It's about a young woman whose sister committed suicide about six years before. She's sort of living in the shadow of her vivacious sister's life and death. In a sudden burst of energy (I don't think I'm ruining it) she decides to follow the footsteps of her sister and her last few months in Europe, ending at the place of her death, in an effort to solve the mystery of how she could have killed herself.

The story takes place in 1978, with flashbacks to older sister's involvement in the scene in San Francisco and Europe in the '60s. Egan creates a vivid sense of space and time. One of the major themes of the book is nostalgia, and, she's brilliant at it - I felt a nostalgia for a time I'd never experienced just reading it.
"The weird thing about that time," he said, tentative now, "is in a way we were nostalgic for it even while it happened. I htink it had to do with constandly watching ourselves, on drugs, the whole out-of-body thing, but also on TV, in the papers. We were news. Whatever we did felt so big, so unbelievably powerful, almost like it was happening in retrospect. I've never felt anything like that, before or sinse. It wasn't real life. Which I guess is what made it great."
Like Look at Me, this book also deals with identity as well, in this case, the younger sister's discovery of her own personality outside the definition of herself as created in and by her family.

I'd recommend it - it was really great.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I, Robot

We read I, Robot for book club. Its a set of short stories originally published in 1950 by Isaac Asimov, and it represents a couple of "firsts" - husband claims it's the first time the word "Robotics" is used, and, also, Asimov presents his famous "Three Laws of Robotics". Each of the stories explores the three laws - it's really rather brilliant, because Asimov invents these laws, and then proceeds to challenge each one of them. Many of his arguments come down to semantics, for example, as you may know, one of the laws is that a robot may not harm a human - and then tells a story about a robot who causes all sorts of trouble because he's unable to hurt anyone's feelings. Oh ho ho.

Well, if you're looking for a nice intro to some classic sci-fi, I, Robot is a great place to start - everyone in book club agreed that it's very accessible. Our family copy is from The Complete Robot, a collection of all his robot/human short stories published between 1940 and 1976. BTW, if your cover has Will Smith on the front and you're wondering what the stories have to do with the movie - nothing!

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Recently re-read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in preparation for the movie. Side note: tried to convince husband to dress us as Mr. and Mrs. Weasley with me but prospect does not look good. It's sad.

Harry Potter fans will have read The Half-Blood Prince back in 2005 right after it was released, so I'm not going to worry to much about spoilers. Rowling's 600 page book, the 6th in the series, did not disappoint. I loved the role that Dumbledore played in this one, becoming more and more of a peer to Harry and so respectful of his friendship with Hermione and Ron! My fave part was probably where Dumbledore goes to retrieve Harry from the Dursleys - when the Dursley's greet him with their regular behavior:
'Judging by your look of stunned disbelief, Harry did not warn you that I was coming,' said Dumbledore pleasantly 'However, let us assume that you have invited me warmingly into your house. It is unwise to linger overlong on doorsteps in these troubled times.

He stepped smartly over the threshold and close the front door behind him.

'It is a long time since my last visit,' said Dumbledore, peering down his crooked nose at Uncle Vernon. 'I must say, your agapanthuses are flourishing.'

Agapanthuses? Hilarious!
'I don't mean to be rude -' he began, in a tone that threatened rudeness in every syllable.

'-yet, sadly, accidental rudeness occurs alarmingly often,' Dumbledore finished the sentence gravely. 'Best to say nothing at all, my dear man. Ah, and this must be Petunia.

Just like Dumbledore is Harry's stand-in for the perfect parent/grandparent, I found myself wishing he was my guardian too, swooping in and giving the old what for to my proverbial Dursleys.

I remember (the first time) reading the book and being so surprised by the ending - and then the rather wonderful thrill of asking everyone - have you finished yet? - so that you might quietly talk about whether you thought Snape was truly on the dark side or not. Everyone was so respectful (with the exception of this jackhole) of other fans' experiences. I miss the fun of like, the whole world reading the same book - I hope we see something similar again one day!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge is this year's Pulitzer Prize winner - I find Pulitzer winners to be a great bet, with the exception of The Road, which I have no intention of reading.

Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge is quite a fine book that reminded me of Empire Falls, even All Creatures Great and Small (but not in a cheesy way). It's the stories of many people in a small, new England town, and Olive is a woman who kept surprising me. I felt that I never knew who she really was, which was kind of wonderful, because she ages quite a bit throughout the book. I love it when authors explore the idea, even as they create a character, that identity and personality are fluid. Olive is a heart-breaking woman - usually never referred to by others or herself without referencing her size or her lack of style. Like the mother in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, she's an imperfect character - she's not exactly likeable, but you hope the best for her.

Stout's writing style is not extravagant, but her prose is simple and beautiful. Several times I literally burst into tears just... instantly.

Some favorite passages:
She had lived through a lot of things with this country, but she had never lived through the mess they were in now. Here was the man who looked retarded, Olive thought, remembering the remark that was made by the woman in Moody's store. You could see it in his stupid little eyes. And the country had voted him in! A born-again Christina with a cocaine addiction. So they deserved to go to hell, and would.

...He would not let her go. Even though, staring into her open eyes in the swirling salt-filled water, with sun flashing through each wave, he thought he would like tis moment to be forever: the dark-haired woman on shore calling for their safety, the girl who had once jumped rope like a queen, now holding him with a fierceness that matched the power of the ocean - oh, insane, ludicrous, unknowable world! Look how she wanted to live, look how she wanted to hold on.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Brazen

For book club, we decided to read a romance novel upon the suggestion of C. who read a few for a class on popular lit., along with an article on romance novels ("Bodice Rippers", I like to call them, based on the usual cover art): "Reading is not eating" by Janice Radway (Publishing Research Quarterly, Volume 2, Number 3, September, 1986).

The chosen book was Brazen, by Susan Johnson. I don't suppose I'll go into a long explanation of the book aside to say that it followed the usual formulas of the strong-willed, sexually unfulfilled woman who falls for the seemingly unattainable Kit Braddock and they soon find themselves in an illicit love affair that threatens both their lives! (This is in contrast to the other formula of the innocent young woman who finds herself the unwilling object of desire to the local rogue - contains rape scene.) No one in our club, except, uh, myself had ever read such a book before and all were quite shocked by sex scenes therein ("It's PORN!" said G.).

I did not enjoying Johnson's writing style, and the sex scenes were kind of oogy - mainly re: all the inane dialogue and repetition of the word "cleft". Also, every time Kit and the Countess engaged in the ol' vaginal/penile, Kit would pause: Am I hurting you?

The vagina, as everyone knows, is a rather remarkable body part capable of astonishing elasticity. Most of us know that a small human can be squeezed through its walls; it can certainly accommodate the penis of Kit Braddock.

Radway's twenty year-old article was a really interesting exploration of the women who write and read romance fiction. I believe her goal was to illustrate that women who read these types of books form a community and have more forward beliefs than the books typically illustrate (basically your standard issue white, hetero-normative, patriarchal hierarchy.) While she was not able to support that suspicion (only that some woman may have had what you might call a "community" by the purest, simplest definition, but certainly not anything fulfilling or supportive), she surmised that the women had the fullest potential of creating such communities and being a force of active change within their social spheres. (Of course, you might argue that everyone has that potential...) But what was really interesting to me was that both writers and readers considered themselves feminists for reading the books and that the subjects therein were feminist triumphs as well.

Naturally, everyone's definition of "feminism" is a little different, but I found it rather alarming that something that absolutely operated within the confines of a patriarchal system (both the story itself and the capitalistic structure of the mass-produced paperback) was interpreted as "feminist". Far be it from me to get up in someone's grill when they think they're a feminist and I don't, but it was very curious indeed.

Anywho, all that lead to a really interesting conversation about Marxism and the replacement of real interaction with goods, and the question of how the internet breaks down some of the tenants of Marxism by providing a mostly free place for people to share book recommendations. I'll even bet there's now a lot of those communities of women (And men! Apparently men are reading these novels too!) Radway was looking for - blogging about their Bodice Rippers (I hope someone will correct me and tell me it's "Historical Fiction") and maybe even planning the next cultural revolution for us! (I hope so!)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pride and Prejudice

I'm experiencing something of an England literature renaissance - a few years ago I fell deeply in love with Mary Ann Evans (aka: George Eliot), and I just finished Pride and Prejudice and LOVED it! You know I've got Wuthering Heights up on my bedside table, too.

I was under the impression that I didn't like Austin for lo these many years - one's tastes change, though, and the time was suddenly right for me and her. Honestly, sometimes I have to wonder how Shakespeare gets all the credit for Eng Lit - Austin and Eliot are Just So Amazing.

I love the way she structures her characters - so many of them are caricatures - the ambitious and silly mother, the obsequious Reverend, the snobby gentry, the "good" sister and the "bad" one - but, nevertheless, the main characters, Darcy and Elizabeth, really do grow and change through the novel.

As I read it, I really regretted the English Lit degree that I never got - how I would love to sit around a seminar table and talk about this book for hours, and then write a 400 page dissertation on, oh, something like Romantic Love and Early Feminism. I suppose someone's probably already written that...

Here are a few of my favorite lines:
The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense.

Her own thoughts were employing her. She expected every moment that some of the gentlemen would enter the room. She wished, she feared, that the master of the house might be amongst them; and whether she wished or feared it most, she could scarcely determine.

and, the classic:

You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.

I actually read the entire book on my new ipod touch (on a P&P app, no less). The experience of reading my first book on a mobile devise was an interesting one - with a couple of pluses (it's 4"x2" and only weights 4 ounces, I always had it on me, I could read in the dark without bothering husband too much) and a couple of negatives (it hurt my eyes sometimes, I couldn't write in the margins, had to watch the battery). I'm not going to run out and buy a Kindle, but it was handy to have a book always on me.

One thing that I never thought would bother me was that I really wanted to know where in the book I was - I had to keep checking the table on contents to see how many chapters remained. I think seeing how many pages I have left helps me gauge my pacing. There's something exciting about flipping pages ever faster when the plot gets exciting, but all I could do was scroll along a little more quickly. I think some contemporary artists (Krauss, Safron Foer) utilize the paper page in their stories, and I wonder what it would be like to read their work on a screen. Something, surely, will be lost. So, I'll remain fairly loyal to the physical book in my hand, but, as Ann Kirschner writes in her article, Reading Dickens Four Ways, I love reading more than I love books.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Austenland

Rebecca Traister wrote an article for Salon a couple of years ago about the new surge of books about or Jane Austin and the Austen-verse, and people who want to live in it. Most of them start with some variation of the phrase It is a truth universally acknowledged and ends with a young woman finding love in her own "Mr Darcy" - a man that at first seems aloof and snobby, but it turns out he's really dreamy and loyal and kinda shy. Traister reminds us that, 200 years ago, the game was less about finding romance and more about desperately securing a deal that would leave women financially solvent before it was too late.

I haven't actually read much Jane Austen - I'm half-way through Pride and Prejudice now, and, I'm finding her absolutely hilarious. So far, I love it. I hate to pretend like I know that much about her work, although I am a big fan of several off-shoots - Bridget Jones's Diary, Colin Firth and the BBC version.

I picked up Austenland for my sister, who's something of a Janeite, but, it called out to me too, and I read it myself. Shannon Hale's book (here's the first chapter) is about a young woman who goes to something of a Jane Austen theme park, wherein she visits a big Regency house in England for a couple of weeks and dresses and eats and sits quietly and attempts to sew and play the piano while wooed by a couple of actors who pretend to be characters from the books.

For the most part, I found it enjoyable but light reading. I think Hale tried a little too hard to make her Jane an unwilling participant in her own vacation. She goes to some convoluted lengths to show that Jane, who's hung up on the concept of Mr Darcy (more like Colin Firth) is just going along with everything in order to finally purge her Darcy fantasy forever. That was a bit of a stretch that I think could have been easily cleaned up. The bits about her history of bad boyfriends were pretty funny. One of the first things that happens to her in Austenland is that her body literally aches from lack of exercise - it reminds me of a line from a Jane Austen movie where two women take a short walk around a room and one proclaims, "This is SO refreshing!" A line me and said sister like to shout at each other, usually when we're in a pool, cocktail in hand.

I'm going to turn back to the real Austen and then probably uh, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

More Tim Gunn

Awesome public service announcement from Tim Gunn visiting the NY Public Library. He is shown some historic documents and books about fashion. Libraries are often overlooked as keepers of artifacts, and too bad too! There are some librarians out there who are just dying to show off the coolest thing in their collection! Why not ask your local librarian what she'd like to share with you?

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Atmospheric Disturbances

Atmospheric Disturbances was our last book club book. It's the first novel by Rivka Galchen (2008). It's about a man, a psychiatrist, who suddenly believes the woman who comes home, who looks and sounds exactly like his wife, is not actually his wife.

Hopefully without giving too much away, there's a bit of a mystery as to whether the man has actually gone crazy or whether the woman really isn't his wife. And, my point of view, which, I suppose, really does give it all away, is that it really doesn't matter one way or the other, the heart of the issue is that the person you love is likely to change. Galchen's story is a metaphor for this transformation.

Galchen is certainly a very talented writer - she has a contemporary style and the text includes various images that made the reading experience really enjoyable and fun.

Atmospheric Disturbances has a lot to do with perceptions of reality, and, while reading it, I definitely had "reality" on my mind. One phrase, consensus view of reality, made me sit back and think for some time.

I would imagine this book is not for everyone, in fact, very few people at book club claimed to come anywhere near enjoying it (I was one), but, I think it was quite interesting, especially if you're a fan of contemporary fiction.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style

Just for funsies, I picked up Tim Gunn's A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style when I forgot to take my book to work one day. It seems like there are a whole new slew of "Guides to Style" out there begging the question: If one has neither taste nor style, can they acquire it through a book? I think no, but, it's an amusing prospect.

Gunn's book is delightful when it is clearly written by Gunn - I liked the bit at the beginning where he describes his own style journey, largely related to his career path. His extravagant vocabulary is as marvelous in print as it is on Project Runway - he's all ne plus ultra, and chacon á son goût. His co-writer, (look for that tiny, tiny print on the cover) Kate Moloney seems to take over shortly thereafter. I find it quite hard to believe that Gunn's advise is to wear a "whimsical" headband while washing the face.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Gift, part 1

The Gift was originally published in 1979 by Lewis Hyde under the title The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. Now it's called The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. His definition of "erotic" perhaps confused. Anywho, the book's highly recommended by folks like Zadie Smith and Margaret Atwood. And in Amazon, most of the comments read something like, "life-changing".

I recently read Atwood's Payback, a concise book that defines debt, including literary and cultural analysis that's so unbelievably spot-on you really can't help but read the book and say, "Yes, that's what debt is all about." In comparison, Hyde's book is a rambles along with a non-sense definition of "gift". But who doesn't look unorganized compared to Atwood?

One of the main reasons I found (part one of) The Gift so frustrating is because my definition and his of a gift are wildly different. My definition is simple - a gift is something that is given, and nothing is expected in return. True gifts are rare. His definition is that a gift is something that creates a bond between the giver and the receiver, and that a gift must be kept in motion. He also seems to believe in the "gift" of talent (like a muse); I don't really believe in that. To me, people have potential that they do or they don't take advantage of.

In fact, Hyde's definition of a "gift" sounds oddly familiar to a "debt." His folk-tale and "primitive" society examples of gift economies do little more than attempt to elevate the idea of the "noble savage" and belittle people in impoverished communities as better off for being removed from the capitalist system. Don't get me started on what he has to say about "publish or perish."

Right now I'm kind of skimming part 2 for worthwhile information. The book's not completely terrible, there are a few interesting bits. It caused me to put a little more thought into defining gift for myself, and I think it's quite clear that it was influential to Atwood in her writing of Payback. If you have read it, I'd be very interested to hear what you think!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Animals in Translation

Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior is written by Temple Grandin (and Catherine Johnson) a woman who has autism.

Grandin's theory is that autistic persons and animals have a lot in common because they both think non-verbally. Both think, she writes, in a series of images. When I first started reading the book it kind of blew my mind because I'd never really thought that people might think in different ways. I had recently seen Iris, about writer Iris Murdoch, who loses her considerable language skills through autism. At the time, I couldn't imagine anything worse than loosing language, but I have more recently broadened my opinion.

Grandin has created a useful career in which she visits farms to make sure animals (that we eat) are being treated humanely. She has the unique ability to look at the farms and slaughterhouses from, for example, a cow's point of view, and identify areas that would be confusing or terrifying to the animals.

A couple aspects of the book I didn't like - Grandin refers to two types of people: Autistic people and "normal" people. Every "normal" grated my brain - I wish she hadn't used it that way. Also, she really beats a point into the ground. She's quite repetitive.

It's a fascinating book that taught me a lot about both animals and autistic folks. She brings up some important questions - like, how can we not just provide animals (that we'll eat, which, let's face it, is an industry that's not going anywhere) with an ok death and an ok life, but actually like, a pleasant, meaningful life.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Whitney Woman

The Whitney Women and the Museum they Made is by the granddaughter of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Flora Miller Biddle.

I'm not able to finish the book, for now, at least. Biddle's writing is uneven and the book has a chaotic organization that's driving me a bit crazy. The first part is about the elder Whitney's childhood - a sort of unbearable poor-little-rich-girl story interspersed with how the art word has changed so much that you could hardly run a museum they way they did back in the glory days. Yes, a whole new team of wealth and privilege has come in - it breaks the heart, it really does.

Here's a passage:
...our parents were neither pretentious nor ostentatious. They gave us few material things, except for what we needed to learn what they deemed important - horses, shotguns, tennis racquets, classic books, fishing rods, bicycles - but even these came only for Christmas or birthdays. Our monthly allowances were minuscule. Movie houses and movies were rarely allowed (too germ-filled and exciting, respectively) - no candy either, and, once in a very great while, an ice cream cone. Our lives were protected, monitored, and structured. We had no fabricated entertainment. We learned early to amuse ourselves.

I might come back to this book later, because I'd like to learn more about how the museum was started, but, alas, it's not a page-turner. I definitely wouldn't suggest it for casual reading.

Undead and Unread

I've been striking out with books a lot recently. I think there were no less than three books this month that didn't make the cut. And, believe me, I have a fairly high tolerance.

I made it to page 79 before I decided Undead and Unemployed by Mary Janice Davidson was simply too insulting to my intelligence to continue. It's about a woman who's recently become the queen of vampires somehow. I guess it's the second book in a series. It could have used one of those Sweet Valley Highesque introductions that brings all readers up to speed.

In a genre where the bar for engaging writing is already extremely low, Davidson's style is something like a 16 year old practicing stream-of-consciousness. The vampire, for example, is beyond excited to get a job in a mall, where she can be surrounded by shoes.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Maps and Legends

I read Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends for my book club. I'm a big Chabon fan so I was quite sure I'd like it. By rather amazing coincidence, he was speaking at the uni where I work so I got to see him read just a few weeks before we met to discuss. That was a real treat.

Maps and Legends is a collection of essays/book reviews. For the most part, it's a defense of genre writing. Chabon rights about how, with some exceptions, genre writing (sci-fi, fantasy, etc) is not considered high literature. This is expressed on the best-seller lists and in the book stores, where there's a "literature" section, and then all those "other" sections. As a writer and a reader, Chabon's sensitive to that literal and figurative delegation to the "other". It is just those books that walk on the boundaries (he argues) that make for the most interesting stories anyway.

I'm a big believer that, at most, we should have a fiction and a non-fiction section in our book stores and libraries (but I'm leaning toward alphabetical by author across the board) so I really loved seeing my opinion so neatly matched with one of my favorite writers. Reading Maps and Legends was a lot like watching a Woody Allen film - it made me feel really smart when I got all his literary references (I'm a terrible elitist at heart, it's true).

What I didn't like about the book was how, in seeking to elevate genre stories, he found it necessary to denigrate a lot of contemporary fiction, which I also happen to enjoy. He also revealed something else that I won't go into for fear of ruining the book for you. However... at our book club we talked about how this book is so ... specialized, aggravating, elitist ... that there are basically no people that we'd recommend it to. For me, there were two people, and I've already told them. But, I'll leave you with one of the lovely bits, to spark your interest:
In the meantime, I had begun to publish stories of my own, stories, in some cases, about fathers who disappointed their sons. The fathers in these stories were golem-fathers. I wove alphabetical spells around them, and breathed life into them, and they got up and walked out into the world and caused trouble and embarrassment for the small man of the flesh and blood in whose image they had been cast. Or maybe it was I who was the golem, my father's goldem, animated by the enchantment of the narratives and lies, then rising up until I posed a danger to him and all the unlikely things that he, strangely enough, believed in.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Kitchen

Only read about 50 pages of Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto before I gave up on it. It's one of those interminably dull books sort of in the style of Never Let Me Go. These days if something even slightly reminds me of that book I can barely stand it.

Despite being about a Japanese transvestite that's suddenly murdered, I found Kitchen extremely boring. Yoshimoto's prose is sparse, to say the least.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Like Life

Like Life is a book of short stories by Lorrie Moore - a friend introduced me to her work a few years ago with her book, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? Moore is a very funny and poetic writer. Her short stories remind me of M. Atwood (she's that good!)

In one story, the main character is a poet who writes poems about "whores" - Moore intersperses the story with poems:
They come down to the truckers
or the truckers go up
to the rooms with the curtains pell-mell.
They truck down for the fuckers
or else they fuck up
in the Pepsi Have a Pepsi Hotel.

Later she writes:
She should stay here with him, unorphan him with love's unorphaning, live wise and simple in a world monstrous enough for years of whores and death, and poems of whores and death so monstrous how could one live in it at all? One had to build shelters. One had to make pockets and live inside them. She should live where there were trees. She should live where there were birds. No bird, no tree had ever made her unhappy.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf caught my eye in the library. I read the first 150 pages before I admitted to myself that it was going nowhere. It's hard for me to quit on a book.

Kahf's novel is about a woman who grows up in a small Muslim community in Indiana. I just love reading a book about a place I know, but it really read like the author had little familiarity with Indiana. The characters in the book are Islamic fundamentalists who run into oppression both mild and extreme in Indiana (and the US). Maybe it's because I grew up there, but the Indiana bits really stuck out for me as clumsy and a bit hackneyed. For a book about, essentially, diaspora, the sense of place was simply not real for me.

The book kind of rambles along, occasionally switching POV and timeframe rather inexplicably. I started skimming ahead and saw that the main character went through a couple of dramatic (and cliched) changes until, it appeared, she finally became a racecar driver in the Indy 500?

I was also disappointed because some rituals of culture the characters express were unfamiliar to me and there was little explanation - I know the book's not meant to be a 101-Introduction to Islam, but I think greater detail would have enhanced the story.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Michael Chabon & Amazon Fail

By amazing coincidence, Michael Chabon was speaking at Northwestern tonight - just two weeks before our book club for Maps and Legends! Naturally I told everyone I arranged it personally, and they all believed me for approximately 30 seconds on accounta the previous surprise of free books. Ha ha!

He read a very long essay about his love of Edgar Allen Poe, including his childhood fantasy that he was, in fact, the reincarnation of Poe. It was the perfect reading for me because he spoke at length about the themes in Maps and Legends. He has a rather elegant allegory for how literature and reading and writing are geographical - I won't try to summarize that - and his love for what we call genre fiction today - Poe being a perfect example.

I wish he had spoken more extemporaneously rather than reading from his script - alas, few great writers are great readers, but, it was very exciting to see him and to be part of the audience.

It's also quite a coincidence that I saw him today, as all this Amazon shit is hitting the fan. If you ask me, Amazon's practicing a particularly nasty brand of censorship based on genre profiling - namely anything "they" (but who are they?) consider GLBT, erotic or romantic, with some pretty shocking inclusions like Lady Chatterly's Lover and, one of my personal faves, Bastard Out of Carolina. (Oh no they didn't!) Amazon is hiding the books' true sales rank, thus making it less likely they'll appear in searches.

After the shitstorm of controversy, especially on the blogs and apparently Twitter (thus possibly proving that Twitter might be worthwhile), Amazon is claiming that the whole thing is a "glitch", which sounds like total bullshit to me. But, why are they doing this? Supposedly they're not run by religious fundamentalists, which this whole things reeks of - then why?

Anywho, I'm doing a bit of Amazon searching myself to see what I find. So far:

  • a search for "homosexuality" - first result? A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality O.M.G.
  • Lady Chatterley's Lover is currently ranked 33,508 - D.H. Lawrence hasn't had this much press since...
  • A biography of Ellen Degeneres by Lisa Iannucci does not have a ranking