Monday, December 27, 2010

The Passage

I read something vaguely promising about The Passage somewhere so when I saw it in a used book store, I snatched it up. Perhaps not the wisest purchase because I got it in one of those books-by- the- pound places and it's 750 pages. Also it blows and I'm not going to finish it. It's this dumb book by Justin Cronin about a secret virus thing they give to convicts that turns them into vampires. And then the vampires break out of this secret bunker place and start destroying the whole world. And meanwhile, this one guy is watching a little girl who also has the virus but she doesn't try to kill anyone, she's just really sensitive to light, see? But the guy is really dimwitted and he's like, huh, I wonder what this weird virus is that turns people into raving blood thirsty super-strength lunatics? Oh well, I'm just going to keep taking care of this light-sensitive kid.

There is just nothing in the world more boring than a book about kids, amirite?

I thought it would be a sort of perfect vampire- related brainless novel, perfect for laying around my parents house during the holidays, but it's way too brainless. It reads kind of like a cross between Dan Brown and Michael Creighton. So, I popped out to the bookstore and got another 550 page book - Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. This is making a lot of Best of 2010 book lists (I'll write mine soon) so perhaps I'll finish it before the new year and add it to mine too. So far, it's about 10,000 x's better than The Passage.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

My first review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was more of a rant about English and American versions of the books and avoided all spoilers. After the movie came out, I read it again, and, assuming you've read the book by now if you're going to, this will be rife with spoilers.

This book dives right into the Harry universe without so much as a gentle recap of the storyline, which I appreciate. I thought the bit with Harry finally saying goodbye to the Dursleys, and the Dursley's complete inability to look him in the eye, with the exception of a changed Duddly, was some fine foreshadowing that this book was not going to have a fairy tale ending, and that it's not exactly a children's book anymore. I sped through the first half, where Harry, Hermione and Ron are wandering around the countryside looking for horcruxes. I loved what Rowling did with Hermione's beaded bag and all the things she packed in there. I enjoyed reading the back-story of Kreacher, the Black's house elf. (BTW, I though the movie was excellent!)

The second part, the break into and out of Gringotts, the war at Hogwarts, was really exciting. I could barely put the book down when I got to the end. When they jump on that dragon in Gringotts and break out of there... oooo! And, when they get to Hogwarts and the other students are in the Room of Requirement, just waiting for such an opportunity to fight, I thought their bravery, such an, honestly, rather unusual quality these days, read as true. My favorite bits were McGonnagal chasing Snape and fighting.
"My word," puffed, pale and sweaty, his walrus moustache aquiver. "What a to-do! I'm not at all sure whether this is wise, Minerva. he is bound to find a way in, you know, and anyone who has tried to delay him will be in more grievous peril -"

"I shall expect you and the Slytherins in the Great Hall in twenty minutes, also," said Professor McGonagall. "If you wish to leave with your students, we shall not stop you. But if any of you attempt to sabotage our resistance, or take up arms against us within this castle, then, Horace, we duel to kill."

"Minerva!" he said, aghast.
And, I thought Rowling pulled an interesting little literary conceit at the end when we're not quite sure what's going to happen to Harry where he goes through a long series of Snape's memories (although it borders slightly on the Matrix construct), and finally found out that Snape actually WAS a good guy and working for Dumbledore this WHOLE time! Good grief!

I've heard some folks say they didn't exactly love the wrap up 16 years later with Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione taking their kids to the train station, but I thought it was excellent. I did want to know that all those parties got together and that Neville became a professor and that even Draco make it out ok. These are characters I was invested in, and it pleased me to read that Harry continues to honor his heroes - Dumbledore, his parents, and Snape, "the bravest man [he] ever knew."

Monday, December 06, 2010

Zeitoun

Zeitoun is written by Dave Eggers about a man named Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife, Kathy. It's sort of the same idea as Eggers brilliant and beautiful What is the What. Zeitoun and Kathy lived in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and chronicles what happened to their family. Zeitoun wouldn't evacuate the city with his wife and children because he owned a construction company and several rental properties and wanted to make sure they were in order, and, like many others, he had no idea how bad the storm would be.

The first part is how they learned about the storm and deciding whether or not to leave town, the second is how Zeitoun lived in the flooded city and some of the things he did to help people and animals, while his wife tried to find a place for her and the kids to stay. This part is really fascinating because Zeitoun had a canoe, which he used to help a handful of people, and he slept on the roof of his garage in a tent (because it was too hot in the house) quite happily. He fed neighborhood dogs that were trapped in their houses.

The story of his wife's adventures are less action-packed, but the story of her life is really interesting - she's a southern woman who converted to Islam and married the Syrian immigrant, Zeitoun. Her own family is unsupportive of her choices and her former Christian mega-church mocked her honest exploration of the Muslim faith. Her experience as a Muslim woman in the south could have made a great book in its own right.

The third part of the book came as rather a shock to me because I had no idea it was coming - Zeitoun was unlawfully imprisoned by FEMA agents and kept in jail without sentencing or a phone call for over a month. He was abused, served pork products that he couldn't eat, isolated and kept like an animal in an outdoor cage without so much as a blanket or a bed. He was arrested with one of his tenants and two companions on his own property. His companions had it even worse than him - they spent 5, 6 and 8 months in jail and lost all their possessions and savings. The book is a really horrifying tale of human rights abuses, not merely those related to how Zeitoun was treated but also how the swarms of military sent to New Orleans after the hurricane were not only ineffectual but caused more damage. Zeitoun, for example, paddling in his canoe was able to locate people who needed help because he could hear them. The military response rode giant boats that were loud and created dangerous waves. A "rescue" helicopter nearly killed him.

In summary, the Zeitouns seemed to be suffering from some fairly severe post-traumatic stress disorder - I hope they're doing better now. The betrayal of a government they trusted and the hatefulness of those in power destroyed some of their faith in humanity. It was very disturbing to read. Like many Eggers book, this one ends with pages of organizations to combat human rights violations and rebuild New Orleans, so if you finish with the desire to do more, you can.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Evermore

I don't recall where I happened across a review of Evermore, but, anywho, it got compared to Twilight, only slightly more racy. And I was like, Alright. I'm in.

There are some quite amusing reviews on Amazon arguing about whether it's better or worse than Twilight, but what's clear is this book is obviously heavily influenced by our friend Stephanie Meyer. It was as if the author, Alyson Noel, read Twilight and said, "I can do better than that." And then did mildly better than that.

Ever, the 16/17 year old protagonist, moves to California to live with her Aunt after her family is killed in a car accident. She quickly locks eyes with Damen and finds herself inextricably drawn to him. Turns out, Damen has a secret - seems like he's hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of years old, and to prove it, he does some creepy old-man tricks like pulling flowers from behind girl's ears. Sound familiar?

(One of) the weird things about Twilight is that Edward and Bella are really crazy about each other even though neither one has anything to be crazy about. They're both boring, unlikable characters with little personality outside chuckling and clumsiness. In Evermore, the main characters are only slightly more interesting, but at least Ever has some talents of her own - she can read minds and see auras, and, she also sees her sister - a ghost who died in that car crash.

Yes, but how racy is it, you ask? Well, not very. Anyone looking for the broken beds and bruises (ick) of Breaking Dawn will be disappointed. Ever and Damen kisss and she dribbles off those bobby brooks, but panics when he goes for her undies. Then this happens:
And when it's clear he has no plans to continue I say, "You know, it would really be nice if you'd stop talking in code, finish a sentence, and tell me what the heck is going on. Because all I know is that Evangeline is dead, Haven's wrist is a red oozing mess, you ditched me at the beach because I wouldn't go all the way, and now you're breaking up with me."
That was the first of two passages that made me laugh, although I'm pretty sure it wasn't intentional.

Here's the other one... Eventually Damen explains that he's an "immortal" and so is Ever, sort of. Also, she's been reincarnated a bunch of times and they always fall in love. He even explains how he pulls all those flowers out of mid-air:
He smiles. "Manifesting. Same way you made the elephant, and this beach. It's simple quantum physics."
Ah, yes! Quantum physics!

I picked up the second book in the series, Blue Moon, but I don't think I'll read it. Well. Skim it. Maybe.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Curse of the Wolf Girl

When we were on vacation in France, I read Curse of the Wolf Girl while husband read the first two Hunger Games books. Not surprisingly, we both finished pretty quickly, then were tortured by all those fabulous French book stores and book stalls along the river full of French books we can't read.

Curse of the Wolf Girl
is the anxiously awaited follow-up to Lonely Werewolf Girl by Martin Millar. A bit too long awaited, for me and my bad memory, because I had no recollection of how that book ended.

This second novel continues the story of Kalix and her family, as well as her rag-tag group of well-meaning, goofy, goth roommates (including the nearly-adopted niece of Malveria the Fire Queen, my favorite character.) It was really funny and caused me to laugh out loud frequently and entertain an ungrateful husband to whom I like to read against his will. It's also packed-full of adventure and fights which I don't ever recall enjoying reading before. Is this a new dawn, I thought, of enjoying "action" books? I asked husband. "What do you mean, action? You never read action books before?"

"Not like this," I said, as I read aloud the following:
Malveria smiled. She took a step forward to address the Fire Elementals who remained at her side. All around were the bodies of fallen comrades. "Gentlemen." She raised her voice over the sound of the thunderous fire. "We are fortunate. It is rare that the opportunity presents itself to perform great deeds of valor that will be talked about in ages to come. We will advance, dispatch the enemy, and return in triumph to let the bards sing songs about us. If any of you would rather not participate in this glorious victory, please feel free to withdraw."

God help me if I didn't pick up the first to Evermore books from the library that I heard are like the new Twilight. Well, sort of - there are some rather hilarious reviews on Amazon that greatly debate whether it's better or worse. Ie. "This series is just as good as Twilight saga!!!!!" and "Evermore is basically Twilight, only much more poorly written, with a dash of "quantum physics", a pinch of a glossed-over theory of reincarnation, and a dollop of The Secret for good measure." Oooo - burrrrrnnn. Well, I'll let you know soon. Right now I'm deep in the throes of the Satanic Verses so I think it will be just the thing to cleanse my palate when I'm done.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Peace is Every Step

I have been experiencing a teensy bit of stress lately and asked a friend that seems to have it together to recommend a good source for chilling out. She recommended two books - Peace is Every Step, by Thich Nhat Hanh and Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living by Pema Chodron.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and apparently very well respected in the Buddhist community, as far as I could tell from the approving comments of my few Buddhist friends. Peace is Every Step was very helpful in reducing my stress level. Nhat Hanh's all about breathing deeply and repeating meditative phrases to stay in the moment, like:
Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.

and, if you're more stressed out or angry, you might say:
Breathing in, I know that anger is here.
Breathing out, I know that the anger is me.
Breathing in, I know that anger is unpleasant.
Breathing out, I know this feeling will pass.
Breathing in, I am calm.
Breathing out, I am strong enough to take care of this anger.

That became frequently helpful, alas to say, many times recently. Repeatedly.

There are some Buddhist practices that I really identify with, and others I wish I could identify with more (but it doesn't seem to be in my nature!) Nhat Hanh, for example, encourages readers to try to understand why "people that cause suffering" might be suffering themselves. I think that's all well and good to a certain point, but I think I'm not a big enough person to do that consistently. He compares anger to a compost pile out of which beautiful things might grow: "When anger is born in us, we can be aware that anger is an energy in us, and we can accept that energy in order to transform it into another kind of energy." OK, but how about cursing and crying and slamming doors and watching tv until all our troubles seem to disappear?

I kid. Sort of. Actually, this book really inspired me (to be a better person!) and I think I should read it a few times more. Although, the jerk in me thinks it's very nice for a monk to propose these things because he's surrounded by a bunch of other monks who are super nice and always practicing mindfulness and whatnot, while the rest of us are mostly surrounded by complete A-holes. Amirite?

I most mention, however, when this book helped me deal with something that was really upsetting me - I had just gone to a funeral of a beloved family friend, and someone in that family had also just had a baby. Grieving and celebrating, welcoming life and saying goodbye all at once was causing me some overload. I couldn't process my emotions. Then, on the way home, I was reading this book and he ends with a poem called Call Me by My True Names, which goes, in part:
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all
walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Innocent Blood

Lately I've developed a affection for British crime novels written by the ladies (Sayers, James) and picked up Innocent Blood somewhere, probably for a quarter or free... I think I need to officially declare that Sayers shall heretofore be my go-to-lady-British-crime-novelist because James has done me wrong too many times.

Innocent Blood is kind of ridiculous. It's about a young woman, Philippa, who's adopted, and she finds out that her birth mother is in prison for murder. But, for various reasons, this doesn't really bother her, even though her birth mother and father were convicted of raping and murdering a child. So, when her mom gets out of prison, they rent a flat together and get to know each other, vaguely. Meanwhile, the father of the murdered child is trying to find the birth mother and kill her.

I found the whole thing unbelievable and the characters really under-developed. In the end (here come some spoilers...), it turns out the birth mother was greatly abused as a child herself (not surprisingly) and what James seems to be half-heartedly pursuing was the idea that violence and disregard for others is a result of nature. In the end, I mean, like the last two pages, Philippa ends up having sex with her adopted dad, which I just thought was a punch in the face after reading the damn thing and I was quite furious:
What, she wondered, had it meant exactly, that gentle, tender, surprisingly uncomplicated coupling; an affirmation, a curiosity satisfied, a test successfully passed, an obstacle ceremoniously moved out of the way so that they could again take up their roles of father and daughter, the excitement of incest without its legal prohibition.

See? That's exactly what I mean about unbelievable characters - nobody has sex with their adopted dad and calls it uncomplicated.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Mockingjay - Spoilers!

I almost walked over to my friend's house and broke in to steal something in the middle of the night. That item? Her copy of Mockingjay. I'd just finished Catching Fire, and I needed that book. I couldn't think about anything else.

Like the other two books in the trilogy, I read the final installment in less than 2 days and really couldn't be distracted to do anything else until I was done. It's a really phenomenal series and absolutely gripping! I'm actually relieved I didn't discover them until they were all out, or I would have been in agony waiting for them to be released!

I'm going to get into specifics, so stop now if you intend to read this in the future...

As you may recall, at the end of Catching Fire, Kitness has just been snatched out of the arena and discovered that Peeta is in the hands of the Capital. At the beginning of Mockingjay, we learn that the revolution is in full swing and Katniss, her mom and sister, Gale and many others are living in District 13, underground. The rebels want Katniss to be the symbol of the revolution, The Mockingjay. She finally consents, after making some conditions. She does inspire the districts with her bravado and hatred for the Capital's practices. I think that bit of the books is interesting because (although I often forget) these are YA books with a largely un-confident female protagonist, who has to prove to herself, or have others point out, that she really is a remarkable and inspiring person. While she may otherwise have little in common with teenage girl readers of the books, it's quite likely that they'll have lack-of-confidence in common.

I enjoyed reading about the underground caverns that make up district 13. How they got their daily schedule temporarily tattooed on their arms, what they ate, what they wore, what their rooms were like. The rebels understood as well as the Capital how important the message of the revolution is - Katniss is instructed to make propos (propoganda messages) to be aired across the districts, while President Snow creates his own propos, using an ever-beaten down Peeta as his tool.

Because Katniss is so overwhelmed by the thought that Peeta is being tortured to effect her, the Rebels free him and others from the Capital, but Peeta's been "hijacked" to believe that she's the enemy and tries to kill her. I thought that was a really clever plot devise even though I found it kind of devastating because I was so wrapped up in the story.

This inspires Katniss and others to topple the Capital, so she, Gale, Finnick and some others (followed by a camera crew) go off to fight. They discover that the Capital has been rigged, much like the Games, with all kinds of crazy traps, and lots of folks on their team get killed. Isn't it interesting when you love someone in a book and when they get killed or die, you've got to recover a little? This book reminded me a lot of the last Harry Potter book (also about a war, also were beloved characters are killed) but Suzanne Collins' book struck a more universal note with me. Ultimately Katniss becomes the sort of moral barometer of the war. She feels the weight of each person she's killed, has caused to be killed, or even sees die. Her friend Gale is the opposite - he looks at the war strategically and logistically and it ultimately drives a wedge between them.

I love how the book ends with Katniss and Peeta creating a book together of everyone who died in their lives, the games, and the revolution:
The page begins with the person's picture. A photo if we can find it. If not, a sketch or painting by Peeta. Then in my most careful handwriting, come all the details it would be a crime to forget. Lady licking Prim's cheek. My father's laugh. Peeta's father with the cookies. The color of Finnick's eyes. What Cinna could do with a length of silk. Boggs reprogramming the Holo. Rue poised on her toes, arms slightly extended, like a bird about to take flight. On and on. We seal the pages with salt water and promises to live well to make their deaths count.


In Mockingjay, Collins illustrates the futility of war, while complicating the fact with the need for revolution. I think it's a really thought-provoking series that leads the reader to contemplate the complicity and responsibility of citizens relationships to their governments. I'm going to enjoy rereading these books many times.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Catching Fire - Spoilers!

I do not like buying hardcover books, but I was drawn to the bookstore mere moments after finishing The Hunger Games where I stood holding and cursing an obnoxiously priced Catching Fire. $18.95? Really?

But, I had to have it. I was addicted, but good. And, for the next 48 hrs or so, I did little else but read it.

In this book, Katniss and Peeta are forced to go on a victory tour through the districts, where they uphold the appearance of their faux romance. Which is sort of real. And Katniss is so confused! And Peeta sleeps in her train compartment! But I don't think they have sex or anything! Anyway, they refuse to play into the Capital's hand and are gracious to the families of the dead tributes in District 2 and get themselves into trouble. They cause so many problems that another Hunger Games is declared and former winners have to play in it! OMG! That was very upsetting. For me and for Katniss.

I got so wrapped up in these books and characters that it was really pretty sad for me when people died or got hurt. I haven't felt real sadness for a dead fictional character since Charlotte's Web. When Cinna got beat up in front of Katniss just before she went into the arena... oh! That was brutal! And some of the new characters are just so fun - the saucy Finnick with a heart of gold, the abrasive Johanna who says, "They can't hurt me. I'm not like the rest of you. There's no one left I love."

My only complain about the plot contrivances is that a lot of Katniss's confusion (how does Peeta really feel about her, why are all the other tributes sacrificing themselves in the arena) could easily be solved by a little chat, but... she's a teenager, I get it. But, these books are so addictive, and not in a bad Twilight-way, a great Harry-Potter-kind-of-way. I think you know what happened after I finished this one...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Catcher in the Rye

I first read The Catcher in the Rye in high school and must have read it at least a dozen times since. I've owned multiple copies, but I frequently give it away if I meet someone who hasn't read it yet. It's on my Top Five for sure.

I suggested it for our last book club, trepidation, because I actually hadn't read it for quite a few years and I wasn't sure if I would still love it as much as I have before, also I was afraid someone else's possible negative reaction would spoil my own. But, it turns out I loved it as much as I ever did (and I think everyone else in book club enjoyed it quite a bit too!)

Re-reading it again, I realized how much the language of the book influenced me as a kid. I used to say that I got a "bang" out of things all the time, a reference only appreciated by my sister and perhaps my friend L. This time around, Holden's criticism of corny music effected me. Now when I'm listening to the radio, I'm like, "Jesus Christ, that IS pretty corny."

There are many things I love, but, just to name a few, I just go crazy over Salinger's narrative structure. It really shines in his short stories, which I've been re-reading this year, but in this novel, what's remarkable is you go on this long journey with the main character, it feels epic. And then, when you think about it, it's a matter of days. I was thinking about tracking the whole thing, kind of like in a day planner, to see how it laid out.

I also love how Holden is a untrustworthy narrator, and the reader needs to decide who to trust - for example, in one scene, his friend tells him to stop shouting and he says he's not shouting, just excited.

What I'm excited about is the possibility of more stories coming from the Salinger estate. He reported hated working with publishers, so we'll see if anything is published now that he's passed away.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go is book one of the "Chaos Walking" series by Patrick Ness. It's a YA book and the first Space Western genre I've ever read! It's about a young man who lives on some distant planet in some distant time but they don't have any advanced technologies (you find out later they're kind of like pilgrims and they wanted to live more "simply"). All the people were settlers, and shortly after they settled in this new place, all the men's thoughts were audible as well as visual to everyone else.

Todd, the kid, lives in this town which doesn't have any women. Everywhere he goes, he's surrounded by the horrible thoughts of the men of the town - and, they're a bitter, awful, violent group of people, barring Todd's adoptive parents, two guys (possibly a gay couple but it's a bit unclear). Without ruining it for you, Todd needs to run away from the town and that's mainly what the book is about.

There's a LOT of repetition in this book and it got really old - and I'm a person who likes repetition. But, ultimately I thought I would tear out my hair if I had to read one more
...I could finish falling down that pit, down down down til there's only blackness, down into the nowhere where there's no more Todd to blame or screw things up or fail Ben or fail Viola...
Or, God forbid:
And I can't hold it back--
And the hate --
And I look over --
At the knife --
Just a few feet away --
On the ledge --

etc. I mean, honestly. Come on.

So, that drove me insane, and I'm quite sure this rather long (almost 500 pages) book could easily have been a decent 300 if they'd cut out some of that nonsense.

But, what I really LIKED was how this misogynous world and its consequences was created. Essentially, I believe Ness was writing a book about the culture of hatred toward women and, unlike, for example, those horrid Stieg Larsson books which are also ostensibly about a culture of violence toward women, but, as I've previously said, end up contributing to that very culture in the form of extremely graphic portrayals of that very violence. Ness manages to describe that world without reveling in the gory details.

He also does very interesting things with text to illustrate how the thoughts of so many men can get jumbled together:

Unlike The Hunger Games, which I really loved, I don't think The Knife Of Letting Go transcends that YA category. I haven't decided if I'm going to read the other books in the Chaos Walking series, but I can definitely see the appeal they have. At it's best, it reminded me of the TV series Firefly and I really enjoyed reading about the universe that was created.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Bad Marie

I heard about Bad Marie on The Rejectionist, a blog I really admire. Her review is excellent and I encourage you to read it.

It's about a woman, Marie, recently released from prison. She's one of those people who have a pretty loose system of morality and she doesn't really feel guilt. This is very interesting to me because I am almost constantly wracked by guilt. Marie (and I'm not ruining it for you) kidnaps her best friend's kid and husband and goes to Paris with them. What's really interesting is how the author, Marcy Dermansky, writes Marie in such a way that you really hope the best for her. To make a villain likeable is such a triumph... I have a theory that Marie is such an empathetic character because it would be such a relief to be even partly like her - to say what you think, to act in the moment, to live without (major) consequences.
Marie was certain this relationship would not last another day. The strain had been too much: death, infidelity, cat abuse, plagiarism, and now this added worry about money. Also, they were drunk, still, from dinner.
But she's not a one-dimensional, soul-less character, in the briefest ways (and those I won't spoil), you find out a little about how Marie became the person she is.

It's a quick, fun read and I'd highly recommend it.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

From Dead to Worse

When I first read a Sookie Stackhouse book, by Charlaine Harris, I was ashamed, yet titilated. The second time: more ashamed, but I had a lot of fun. Now I want to shamelessly read anything I can get my filthy hands on. Her books are fun, interesting, fast-paced, and they fill in the lonely blanks between seasons of True Blood.

Oddly, From Dead to Worse doesn't have ANY of Harris's trademark bloody vampire sex (but that's ok har har har), but this (I think) eighth book in the series was fresh and amusing. And still a little oowkie:

From his tension I realized that some major event was coming at me fast, and I began to be afraid. Eric took my hand as we walked across to the restaurant, and he ran his thumb absently across my palm. I was surprised to find out there was a direct line from my palm to my, my, hootchie.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hunger Games

My colorist and I share a love of YA fiction. I slipped her a copy of Lonely Werewolf Girl, and she tipped me off about The Hunger Games (and that the follow-up to LWG is finally out!). Naturally, I picked up The Hunger Games immediately.

It. Was. Awesome. and I could barely put it down for the two days that it took to read it. It takes place in the dystopian future, where the former America is split into 12 districts and ruled by a central Capital (really central, like, former-Denver). Each year, "the Hunger Games" are held, in which one boy and one girl from each district have to Fight To The Death while the whole thing is televised. The district of the winner gets a fair amount of food while the other districts starve.

The book naturally has a lot of predecessors, most notably Shirley Jackson's 1948 alarming short story The Lottery, which you really must read if you haven't already, and the 1999 Battle Royale by Koushun Takami, which I have not read (but have one friend who said it's her favorite book of all time).

Anywho, as you might imagine, the young female protagonist, Katniss, becomes a contestant in the Hunger Games and struggles to survive and still hold true to her idea of herself (ie not "a murderer".) Interestingly, Katniss is a hunter, and every once in a while examines her own easy attitude toward killing and eating animals as relates to her predicament of needing to kill humans.

Another theme I liked very much about the book is how Katniss and her fellow district contestant accept or give gifts. Katniss keeps a running tally of goods and ills done her - she sees every "gift" she receives as something to be repaid. Her more generous companion does not keep score.

There are three books in the series and I intend to pick up the second one very soon! Anyone else reading these great books? Like any good fiction, I think it really defies labels, particularly that of "YA."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire

I went to a party where a lot of folks were reading the second Larsson book, The Girl Who Played with Fire. All of them were really wrapped up in it and, even though I'd previously told myself, "NO MORE!" I thought... "Maybe one more."

I thought the first book was very readable and certainly captivating, but I was really turned off by the violence and I thought the characters were flat. The second book (Plays with Fire) does expand on the Lisbeth character more (she is most compelling to me) but to sort of re-dick extremes. I'm talking a Luke-I'm-your-father sort of extreme. Without ruining it for you. Or, perhaps I already have.

Larsson heaps abuse on the ladies in this book, just like he did in the first, ostensibly to show, if you haven't been paying attention, that women suffer unconscionable violence at the hands of men. What I believe, gentle reader, is that Larsson contributes to the very culture of violence toward women that he portended to abhor. I was thrilled to see my very thoughts laid out in handsome prose on ye old Tiger Beatdown - I encourage you to read the post if you're at all interested in these books, it's really brilliant.

Anyway, seriously, NO MORE! I am done with you, Stieg Larsson, and I won't read the third book or the forth one either!

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Unnamed

The Unnamed is Joshua Ferris's new book. I really admired his first novel, Then We Came to the End, so I had high hopes. I think Ferris's storytelling is modern and fresh. The Unnamed didn't rock my world, but it is certainly a well-constructed book and I admire the risks he takes.

In the story, an NY lawyer named Tim Farnsworth has some kind of affliction that causes him to walk. The urge to walk is the unnamed thing - no doctor or psychiatrist can diagnose it or even categorize it as a mental or a physical disorder. The not-knowing of his illness is the worst for Farnsworth, in fact, he comes close to suicide several times.

This book is being described by some as the existential contemporary dilemma of suburban America, that we wish to throw off the binds of society and family and abandon our bodies and souls to a sort of undefined naturalism. To me, instead, the story rang like a tale of addiction - Farnsworth, despite all rationality, and at the risk of everything comfortable and wonderful in his life, wife, child, career, home, friends, walks. The interactions between him and his wife becomes a story of just how far this couple will stay together in "sickness and in health".

Tonally, I like how Ferris writes:

He was tough and he was special and he had inner resources, he had many things going for him, and others had seen much worse, time was precious and things happened froa reason and there was always an upside, and it only took a good attitude to fight and win and nothing was going to stop him and tomorrow was another day.


Like other books about the existential zeitgeist of our time, those pesky bees popped up. My favorite bits were the ones with the lawyers. Ferris writes offices really well.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Gaudy Night

So, I finally got that Dorothy Sayers recommendation I was waiting for and 'twas Gaudy Night. It was excellent, and I am very happy! Apparently it's the book that distinguished Sayers from a mere genre writer of detective fiction (the horror!) to an actual writer of literature-y fiction (huzzah!)

The main character is Harriet Vane a (wait for it...) writer of detective fiction and really terrific, strong, female character that's reticent to marry the handsome, charming, intelligent (filthy rich) Peter Whimsey because she fears he might not treat her as an equal (amongst other things).

Vane is asked to return to her alma mater, Oxford, where, in one of the women's colleges, a "poison pen" is wrecking havoc on the school. This "poison pen" writes vile things on the walls and sends people nasty and threatening notes. What's really interesting is how Sayers tells a rivoting mystery without that classic event of so many detective stories: a murder. In fact, she manages to tell the whole tale of the "poison pen" without ever actually writing any dirty words herself, leaving the reader is left to imagine what might have been written.

Written in 1936, the book displays a rather interesting pre-war sentiment. Here are two colloquial characters:
"When I was a lad," replied the foreman, "young ladies was young ladies. And young gentlement was young gentlemen. If you get my meaning."

"Wot this country wants, "said Padgett, "Is a 'Itler."
Like her other books, this one is very funny and awfully smart. I love the character of Harriet Vane, and look forward to reading the other books that are about her. She appears in Strong Poison and is also in Have his Carcase (?) and Busman's Honeymoon.

This song comes up in the book, btw. Lovely. Also, thank goodness (and I don't think I'm ruining it) despite the fact that Whimsey is the famous detective, it's Harriet who is respected for her detective abilities and gets herself out of her own scrapes. Ultimately, Gaudy Night examines the sort of clash of pre-war England as people choose a cultural allegiance - progressivism and intellectualism or political and social regressivism (in a 1930s kind of way).

I would highly recommend this book - at 501 pages (paperback), you can really sink your teeth into it, and you'll want to!

Oh, brush up on your latin! And, if you have already read it and are a Harry Potter fan (or not...) check this out! Hilarious.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The White Tiger

The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga, won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. I'm a believer in the readability of Man Bookers, so that was enough for me. It is extremely readable although not exactly pleasant to read.

Centered around the issue of class conflict in India, it's about a young man named Balram Halwai (his last name implies that he should be a sweet maker) who is the son of a rickshaw driver. He becomes a driver for a wealthy person and eventually an entrepreneur. Balram is partly able to break the expectations of class and caste by the changing social environment in India and also partly because he kills his boss. I'm not, by the way, ruining it for you - that is all disclosed in the first chapter.

Balram spends his day driving his boss to newly erected malls and hotels that he's not allowed to enter. He and his fellow drives are caught in a "chicken coop" where:
A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent - as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way - to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man's hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.

Another major theme of the book is corruption in India. In the paperback copy of the book, there's a "Conversation" with the writer - he is asked "Your novel depicts an India that we don't often see. Was it important to you to present an alternative point of view? Why does a Western audience need this alternative portrayal?" Adiga's answer is that it's not an "alternative" view at all, for him it's a common view of India (re: the corruption). The White Tiger is an interesting departure from some of the popular (and beautiful) books about India that have been mainstream in the US recently - like Divakaruni or Lahiri's books or Kiran Desai's stunning The Inheritance of Loss. Me? I love reading books about India and there are just so many terrific contemporary Indian writers! The reason I found this book unpleasant was merely because the main character is, well, a murderer and has this really immoral behavior justification, and it's largely heart-breaking (although also rather humorous in sections.) Adiga will undoubtedly have more for us to read soon.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Help

My sister gave me a copy of The Help for my birthday and told me, "If you don't cry like, 4 times, you're a monster." Eek. I got a little anxious when I was 3/4 of the way through and hadn't shed a tear.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, is a compelling story about a group of American Southern women. I had a hard time putting it down, even though the book is highly problematic. Told from the perspective of two African-American maids and one white woman, the book is about how the three of them write a book about the maids' experiences working in the homes of white families in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s.

The appropriation of the African-American women's stories and voices made me feel uncomfortable. Aibileen, a kind older woman who brings a very 21st century to bringing up children in the mid-20th century, ruminates:

Minny near bout the best cook in Hinds County, maybe even all a Mississippi. The Junior League Benefit come around ever fall and they be wanting her to make ten caramel cakes to auction off. She ought a be the most sought-after help in the state. Problem is, Minny got a mouth on her. She always be talking back. One day it be the white manager a the Jitney Jungle grocery, next day it be her husband, and ever day it's gone be the white lady she waiting on. The only reason she waiting on Miss Walter so long is Miss Walter be deaf as a doe-nob.
Even Stockett felt uncomfortable - in the after-word, she writes:
I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. I was afraid I would fail to describe a relationship that was so intensely influential in my life, so loving, so grossly stereotyped in American history and literature.
It is, of course, absolutely impossible to capture another person's experience (and nearly impossible to capture your own), but one makes allowances for artist license. I am very sensitive to racial prejudice, so, for me, parts of the book were inappropriate.

Most of the white people in the book are racists, some of whom actively work to harm the welfare of the African-Americans, most whom merely look the other way when they saw it happening. I feel quite positive that any white reader of the book would identify with the white character who has the idea to write the book and works with the maids to tell their stories. But what I found most disturbing is that it's quite unlikely that those same readers would have followed the rather exceptional actions of that character. It's more likely that they would have fallen firmly in the "look the other way" category, or, let's face it, the Civil Rights movement would have ended well before a mere handful of decades ago, and racial injustices would be a thing of the past, which they are not. The Help allows privileged white readers to pat themselves on the back for something we don't deserve.


I noticed the British cover and the American cover are quite different! I'm afraid the American version has fallen prey to that well-known publishing-world fear that images of black people on the cover will keep write readers from picking up the book. All of this is just proof that we still have a long way to go to heal the long, shameful history of racial injustice in this country. If people are reading The Help with a critical mind and asking themselves some hard questions, I think that is helpful.

I did, by the way, get a bit misty a few times near the end, so I guess I'm not a complete monster after all!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Passion

In my course of quickly rectifying my lack of experience reading Jeanette Winterson I picked up The Passion. It takes place in the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars. One character is a cook in Napoleon's kitchen. Another is a Venetian woman, the daughter of a gondolier, who works in a casino. I don't think I'll ruin it by saying their paths cross eventually.

Both of the Winterson books I read are slender books, but best read slowly and thoughtfully. They're crammed full of big ideas, and each led to a crescendo of language and thought at the end.

In The Passion, Winterson lambastes the heartlessness of war:
Home became the focus of joy and sense. We began to believe that we were fighting this war so that we could go home. To keep home safe, to keep home as we started to imagine it. Now that our hearts were gone there was no reliable organ to stem the steady tide of sentiment that stuck to our bayonets and fed our damp fires. There was nothing we wouldn't believe to get us through: God was on our side, the Russians were devils. our wives depended on this war. France depended on this war. There was no alternative to this war.

And the heaviest lie? That we could go home and pick up where we had left off. That our hears would be waiting behind the door with the dog.
(p. 83)
and the importance of love, or passion:
I think now that being free is not being powerful or rich or well regarded or without obligations but being able to love. To love someone else enough to forget about yourself even for one moment is to be free. The mystics and the churchmen talk about throwing off this body and its desires, being no longer a slave to the flesh. The don't say that through the flesh we are set free. That our desire for another will lift us out of ourselves more cleanly than anything divine.
Some people go absolutely batshit over Venice, and I suppose they have every reason to. Her descriptions of Venice were exciting and mysterious and made me want to return there. Oddly, this book occasionally reminded me of this goofy Anne Rice book I read a long time ago called Cry to Heaven about a castrati opera singer, due to the lush descriptions and the decadent lifestyle of the Venetians. But it made me think about (I'm not done yet) the difference between "high" and "low" literature.

Not unlike an Anne Rice novel, some of Winterson's characters are not hetero-normative. Winterson's young woman often dresses as a man, for safety and for fun, and moves somewhat freely between the masculine world (particularly as a boater) and a more feminine one. I think one of the main differences, however, between Winterson and Rice is that Rice's characters exist in a hyper-fantasy while Winterson's are more grounded in reality. Winterson's treatment of the female character's sexuality is pointedly easy; she loves.

Often Winterson's writing takes my breathe away. I love her repetition, the acknowledgment of story-telling, the poetry, and the grand themes. I intend to read everything she's ever written.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Weight

I recently read Jeanette Winterson described as "one of the most brilliant writers in the English language" on a blog I read and respect so I picked up a few of her books from the library. I actually had quite a few of her books on my "wishlist" so it's about time I read her.

The first I read was Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles, which is part of that "The Myths" series. (I love Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad from the series.) In The Myths, authors are invited to tell or re-tell ancient myths, and Winterson tells the tale of Atlas, who was punished with holding the world on his shoulders.

In an introduction, Winterson writes about telling stories and the issue of autobiography:
Weight has a personal story broken against the bigger story of the myth we know and the myth I have re-told. I have written this personal story in the First Person, indeed almost all of my work is written in the First Person, and this leads to questions of autobiography.

Autobiography is not important. Authenticity is important. The writer must fire herself through the text, be the molten stuff that welds together disparate elements. I believe there is always exposure, vulnerability, in the writing process, which is not to say it is either confessional or memoir. Simply, it is real.

Later she leaves the story of Atlas and Heracles and writes:
I know nothing of my biological parents. The live on a lost contenent of DNA. Like Atlantis, all record of them is sunk... Spin the globe. What landmasses are these, unmapped, unnamed? The world evolves, first liquid and alive, then forming burning plates that must cool and set. The experiment is haphazard, toxic at times. Earth is a brinkmanship of breathtaking beauty and a mutant inferno. My own primitive life forms take a long time to web intelligence. When they are intelligent they are still angry.

Wow!

Ultimately, she brings the reader to the conclusion that the weight Atlas (and all of us) carry can simply be put down, if we choose. When she allows Atlas to unburden himself, the world doesn't come to an end, it hangs there without him. Winterson's re-telling of the story of Atlas undoes the story of an eternity of punishment and becomes a beautiful tale about letting go.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

How to Suppress Women's Writing

How to Suppress Women's Writing, by Joanna Russ is a marvelous book that examines the systematic ways that women artists have been suppressed by society and critics. Russ's book is a very readable, accessible polemic against the suppression of women artists (not just writers, but artists, actors, musicians, etc) and explains the various ways that women's work is undermined:

She didn't write it.
She wrote it, but she shouldn't have.
She wrote it, but look what she wrote about.
She wrote it, but "she" isn't really an artist and "it" isn't really serious, of the rigth genre - i.e., really art.
She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it.
She wrote it, but it's only interesting/included in the canon for one, limited reason.
She wrote it, but there are very few of her.
Aside from verbalizing some of the frustrating questions I've been asking myself lately, Russ presents example after example of brilliant women artists and the denial of their place in the canon. She counts representations of women in anthologies, cites old criticism of books, most amusingly when a book is first published under a male pen-name and later revealed to have been written by a woman - like Emily Brönte's Wuthering Heights. After the shocking revelation of the artist's sex, her writing was compared "...to a little bird fluttering its wings against the bars of its cage." When it was understood to be written by a man, it was described as "powerful and original", "bestial, brutal, indeed monstrous."

Women's experience (sometimes but not always the subject of women's writing) is often rejected out of hand. Writes Russ:
Many feminists argue that the automatic devaluation of women's experience and consequent attitudes, values, and judgments springs from an automatic devaluation of women per se, the belief that manhood is "normative" and womanhood somehow "deviant" or "special." ... Not only is female experience often considered less broad, less representative, less important, than male experience, but the actual content of works can be distorted according to whether the author is believed to be of one sex or the other.

Naturally, she addresses Linda Nochlin's extremely influential 1971 article "Why have there been no great women artists?" in which Nochlin writes, "There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cezanne, Picasso or Matisse..." Russ answers that with, "...there is the statement "no great women artists" in a century that has produced Georgia O'Keeffe, Käthe Kollwitz, and Emily Carr, to name only those I happen to like."

Russ ends the book with a challenge to the reader to consider their own prejudices and rejections, while freely admitting that her own book doesn't adequately address the suppression of other minority writers, particularly black women writers and other writers of color and non-Western artists.

I came away with a long list of writers I want to explore more, here are a few:
The Countess of Winchilsea, Anne Finch
Margaret Cavendish
Jane Marcus, Art and Anger
Eve Merriam, The Club
Anna Letitia Barbauld
Jane Elliott
Lady Anne Lindsay
Lady Carolina Nairne
Aphra Behn
Charlotte Brontë's Villette
And, thanks to Russ, I got that Dorothy Sayers recommendation I've been waiting for: Gaudy Night - review coming soon! Let me know if you're familiar with the writers above.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Feed

Feed, by M.T. Anderson, is the next book for our book club. It's officially a Y.A. book, but I think very accessible at least to my age group as well. Feed takes place in the (not-so) distant future when everyone has a chip in their head that's kind of like the internet and facebook. People "chat" even when they're standing right next to each other, and, when the characters go to the mall and walk in a store, they instantly get a feed from the store with ads and prizes based on their previous purchases. Basically it's the dystopian future where the entire culture is consumer-based and corporate-owned and naturally, the environments a wreck. People have lesions on their skin, but even the lesions are consumerized and it becomes cool to have lesions of certain placement, size and shape.

You know in a teen movie where there's this group of good-looking rich kids that goof off and are kind of jerks? The main character is one of those. He falls for this girl, Violet, (on the moon!) and it turns out she's sort of anti-feed and anti-consumerism, but following her path is like, well, turning his back on everything he loves.

Some of the things I loved about this book was the creative language that Anderson employs. While some of the characters are so entrenched in the feed they can barely create a coherent sentence, he's created this goofy, idiotic, dumbed-down language and slang that even the President uses. Anderson's book is frighteningly close to reality, minus like, the flying cars. I think, like most good dystopian fiction, he merely expands upon reality to an absurd, but not impossible, conclusion.

One of my favorite parts, and I don't think I'll ruin it for you... is:
Violet was screaming, "Look at us! You don't have the feed! You are the feed! You're feed! You're being eaten! You're raised for food! Look at what you've made yourselves!" She pointed at Quendy, and went, "She's a monster! A monster! Covered with cuts! She's a creature!"

I think it's an important book, and I can see it being very productive to read it with a young(er) person. Or, any person - I read mine to husband on a car trip although he was a bit perplexed by the language. He kept stopping me to repeat and spell words. I'd say, "I don't know, youch, it says, y-o-u-c-h." It reminded me a lot of my favorite book of all time, The Handmaid's Tale - I will not be surprised if it claims a spot similar to Atwood's book, in the annals of, not just dystopian fiction or YA fiction, but simply excellent fiction.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Poppy Shakespeare

I hate to write that Poppy Shakespeare is like a cross between Catch-22 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, because that's what it says right on the book jacket, but, it's a very good way to describe the book.

It's about a group of people in a mental hospital in London. "N" is the narrator, and Poppy Shakespeare is a woman who is sent to the hospital against her will and attempts to get out, only to find herself in a "Catch-22" whereby she must admit that she's mentally unstable in order to get the support of a facilitator, at which point it's she cannot argue that she is not mentally ill. The whole thing is quite alarming to N and the other patients because they are very comfortable in the hospital and feel safe there and, of course, never WANT to leave.

What emerges is that the characters glide between the fluid space of what is considered "normal" and what might be considered "unstable", and that their environment only intensifies their behavior. The book begins with a quote by Chekhov that I was reminded of again and again:
Since prisons and madhouses exist, why, somebody is bound to sit in them.
The author, Clare Allan, created a whole set of language for the hospital, including, in a very English way, various Ministries of this or that. She gives N a rather marvelous way of speaking - I'm not enough of a linguist to categorize it, but it goes like this:
That frist day Poppy gone down alright. After she'd saved Brian the Butcher's life, people give her the benefit. So when she started slagging the doctors off, how she shat better crap than they come out with, I ain't saying there weren't a bristle gone round but people was prepared to overlook it. On top of which she got novelty value; no one met a dribbler like Poppy before, and when they finally got their heads round the fact that she meant what she said, she didn't want to be there, they was that fucking jiggered, that stunned to the core, it never occurred to them they should be offended.

I thought it was excellent. Very funny and poignant.

Monday, July 05, 2010

What my mother doesn't know

What my Mother Doesn't Know is a sweet little book written in free-form verse. It's over 250 pages, but I read it in about an hour. It's about a young woman (12ish?) who's parents don't get along and watch too much television, and her boyfriend's a d-bag who doesn't want his parents to know she's Jewish.

Apparently it's a frequently banned book because this young woman (*gasp!*) acknowledges her own sexual feelings and says the word "breasts" a couple of times. After a school dance, she waits for her mother, who's late:
I never thought
it would happen this way --
with the guy standing closest to me
suddenly bursting out laughing
and grabbing my breasts
with his slimy paws
squeezing them for a split second
that seems to last forever.

I never once envisioned
the devirginization of my breasts
happening like this,
with the guy and his scumbag buddy
slapping five afterwards
...
(Then she punches him! Yea!)

Well, it's an utterly charming little book and I'd recommend it to just about anyone. One of the most lovely bits (for me) was when she goes to the museum to view her favorite painting, La Bal à Bougival and she later learns that the young woman in the painting is Suzanne Valadon - that's a nice shout-out for a little-known post-impressionist.

Here's some amusing negative criticism on Amazon:

Book Giveaway!


Here are a couple of books I started but weren't for me. If you're in the Continental US and want to read them, leave your email in comments!

The Aqua Net Diaries: Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town, by Jennifer Niven. Written by a woman who grew up in a small town in Indiana during the 80s - just like meeee! But, I couldn't get into it.


Sabbath's Theatre
, by Philip Roth. About an old dude trying to get more tail, as far as I can tell. Reminded me of hiliarious article I read on Tiger Beatdown called "Fond Memories of Vagina" about older, male authors who, well, I'll quote the article:
The plot is always the same: “I am a writer in the twilight of my years, bored with life and my sexual powers. Oh, wait: pussy. I shall attain some. I am reinvigorated! Thanks, pussy!” This bores me and makes my entire lower half numb.

That's two, Philip.

I know, I make them sound really enticing, but, one person's trash...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Adverbs

Ever since I read Watch Your Mouth by Daniel Handler (aka: Lemony Snicket ) I've been dying to read more. Adverbs (2006) is something like short stories but not quite. Sometimes the characters come back but it's also not a novel. Each story/chapter's title is an adverb: Clearly, Naturally, Wrongly, Often, etc. Like most collections, some of them are so-so and some of them make you want to lie down and die (in a good way. Happy.)

Look, I'll go ahead and tell you why it's called that because I don't think it will ruin it for you, and if you're like me, you'll forget anyway... It's based on a party game called "Adverbs" where someone leaves the room and you choose an adverb and when they come back, everyone acts out the word and the person tries to guess.
It's a charade, although it's not much like Charades. You play until you get bored. Nobody keeps score, because there's no sense in keeping track of what everyone is doing.

The story that made me want to die was Soundly - it's about two girl friends, one of whom is dying. They leave the hospital for the day and get stuck in traffic on the way back:

There was a noise above us like an airplane zoom, but it was getting too dark to see. People started laying on the horn, braying like bad geese in a panic. "I am here," Lila said with a trembly smile. Our driver's ed teacher had told us that's what the horn should mean. Not Move along, buddy or I am displeased but I am here. I am here, I am here, I am here!

Beautiful!

Methland

We read Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, by Nick Reding, for book club. The book is quite interesting and I encourage you to read it if you are at all interested in Midwestern drug culture, or even Midwestern culture. Reding creates an argument for the proliferation of meth in the Midwest based on a number of factors - the abundance of chemicals (for corn production), people with few options for employment or wealth, and even that good-old-fashioned American work ethic.

To read his book, you'd think there wasn't a town in the Midwest that wasn't completely destroyed by meth. For me, one of the fallacies of his argument is that I'm from a small Midwestern town and, at least for now, it isn't running rampant with meth addicts roaming the streets like zombies. Of course, that's just my experience, I do know that some of my friends from the Midwest DO know people who's lives have been destroyed by the drug.

I think the book would have made a really terrific long article, perfect for Vanity Fair or the New Yorker, but I thought it was a bit long for a book. I GET IT! METH'S REALLY BAD AND STUFF.

Housekeeping

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson (1980) is a highly acclaimed book which won a bunch of awards and was nominated for the Pulitzer, but I really didn't enjoy it. It's a prose-alicious book that is written with utterly breathtaking sentences, I mean, sometimes I'd read a sentence and then sit back and say, "Well, why would anyone write anything else?" But, altogether I found the book really distant and well, boring. It was a quite odd mix of beautiful writing and a boring story, but that's heavy prose for ya.

I'm sure there are many who'll disagree with me - I encourage you to defend in comments!

Saturday, June 05, 2010

The Nine Tailors

Riding on the high of my first Dorothy Sayers experience, I went to the "Sayers Shelf" in the library and somewhat randomly chose The Nine Tailors, thinking, How could I go wrong? I love the sewing arts.

Turns out the nine tailors are like bells? And a certain style of ringing like, church bells? I'm not kidding you, beyond boring, but I hung in there 'til almost the end. Peter Wimsey continues to delight (despite his own predilection for bell ringing) but I wouldn't recommend this book, even to Quasimodo himself. (PS, the image I've included isn't the cover I had, in case my old friend Anonymous drops by and has something to say. As he always does.)

Now, I know there are some hard-core Sayers fans out there so I patiently await your recommendations before I return to that shelf. I'm not giving up on you, Dorothy!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The American Painter Emma Dial

I picked up The American Painter Emma Dial on our trip to South Beach about a month ago. It caught my eye because I'd heard some buzz about it in Chicago and the author, Samantha Peale, went to The School of the Art Institute (Hey! So did *I*, and yet, I remain an unpublished author.)

It's not exactly a "beach" book - it requires a bit of high-functioning brain activity, exploring the idea of The Artist, creativity, and ownership. Emma Dial is an assistant to a famous (fictional) artist, Michael Freiburg. Freiburg describes his paintings to Dial who executes them flawlessly while he takes all the credit for the work. Some readers might be surprised to hear about this type of relationship in the contemporary artist's studio, as we live in an age that identifies with the art hero as, specifically a solo genius. Of course, it's not unusual for many of today's artists to work as a team. What's interesting is that Dial doesn't seem to resent the fact that her work is identified as her boss's, merely that she isn't given more credit, and also that, as she spends all her creative time creating his art, she has no time or energy left over for her own.

While the book reads like an insider's view of the art world, the themes easily appeal to anyone whose creative work suffers while working for the man.

Peale's writing style is straight-forward, sometimes startlingly so. She writes, "We lay close. He wiped his dick on the sheet, drew me to him, with his arm across my shoulders." Ewww. I appreciated what she didn't describe. Mainly: the art, which allowed me to imagine the paintings as I chose. (For me, something akin to Gerhard Richter.)

Peale herself worked in the studio of Jeff Koons and the "Reading Group Guide Interview", normally ignored but in this case interesting, contained some fascinating tidbits about her own experience as an artist's assistant. But those looking for a roman à clef are apparently misguided. "When I worked for Jeff Koons he encouraged me to do my own work." says Peale. "He always had the time and interest to find out what I was up to and serve up some uncanny insight."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour

Continuing my revisitation of J.D. Salinger, did I extract my Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction from the shelf.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters unfolds in that brilliant way, revealing pieces bit by bit, including that marvelous title.

Seymour is exquisite and indulgent, a dream to read. For fans of the Glass family, and me reading these stories so close together, it, to borrow a phrase from The Dude, really ties the room together. Told from the perspective of Buddy, it's Buddy who tells us that he wrote many of the stories in Nine Stories, even those that don't have to do with the Glass family, like "Teddy". No less than a meditation on art and artist, "Buddy" writes some killer lines, like "When he was twenty-two, he had one special, not thin, sheaf of poems that looked very, very good to me, and I, who have never written a line longhand in my life without instantly visualizing it in eleven-point type, rather fractiously urged him to submit them for publication somewhere." and "You can't argue with someone who believes, or just passionately suspects, that the poet's function is not to write what he must write but rather, to write what he would write if his life depended on his taking responsibility for writing what he must in a style designed to shut out as few of his old librarians as humanly possible." Buddy bristles at the idea that Seymour's art is based on biography, that old saw that true art comes from the imagination - it's one I don't particularly believe in because I think it's generally used as a defense of art by men and a way to discard art by women, but I never get tired of the argument.

I'm waiting with baited breathe to hear if any more stories will be published. Rumor has it that he had piles of stories about the Glasses.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Plot Against America

In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth writes an alternate history to WWII in which, instead of going to war, America doesn't re-elect Franklin Roosevelt but instead Charles Lindberg, who becomes an ally of Hitler.

The story is told from the perspective of a young, Jewish boy in Newark whose parents view with immediate suspicion the change in leadership and the direction of the country. A family vacation to DC reveals the first public expressions of anti-semitism the family faces and soon after the oldest son is recruited to be part of a program to send young Jewish boys to the "heartland" to work on farms. He returns with less respect for his parents and deeply ingrained with the lessons he learned in "real America."

Mr. Mawhinney owned not just one farm but three--the lesser two rented to tenants - land that had been in his family going back nearly to the days of Daniel Boone, and my father owned nothing more impressive than a six-year-old car. Mr. Mawhinney could saddle a horse, drive a tractor, operate a thresher, ride a fertilizer drill, work a field as easily with a team of mules as with a team of oxen; he could rotate crops and manage hired men, both while and Negro; he could repair tools, sharpen plow points and mowers, put up fences, string barbed wire, raise chickens, dip sheep, de-horn cattle, slaughter pigs, smoke bacon, sugar-cure ham- and he had raised watermelons that were the sweetest and juiciest Sandy had ever eaten.

The anti-semitism grows stronger and stronger until eventually the US experiences something quite similar to Kristallnacht.

What Roth's book illustrates is how easily compliancy can lead to vast human rights violations. Published in 2004, it seems quite likely that the book was influenced by the liberties of the Bush administration, although I haven't read anything by Roth himself about that. For me, what really struck home, after some additional research, was the untold story of Charles Linderberg and other notable historical figures like Henry Ford, who are no less than national icons and symbols of all that is good about American ingenuity and capitalism, but were both anti-semites and used a fair amount of their political capital to promote that agenda. (There's a very helpful postscript in the paperback version that includes a "note to the Reader" and a "A True Chronology of the Major Figures" that provides more information.) Many of the hateful comments made by those characters in the book are taken directly from public speeches made by those men. (The postscripts reveals that history has literally been re-written in which re-publications of Lindberg's journals omit anti-semitical statements.)

Roth seems determined to expose Linderberg and Ford for the contributions of hate they added to the political and social atmosphere and I think that's a worthwhile endeavor. Ignoring their faults does a disservice to people who work for peace and, well, shows us that history is often a lie. And, of course, it is.

Aside from providing a lot of fodder for thought, the book is very entertaining and readable, as almost all of Roth's work is. I've never been disappointed by him with the exception of his 1971 Our Gang, which I think I just didn't have the historical perspective to appreciate. If you've never read Roth before, I'd suggest Goodbye, Columbus, which is one of my favorites - but, I certainly haven't read all of his stuff and would appreciate your suggestions if you have!