Monday, December 05, 2011

The Forgotten Waltz

My review of The Forgotten Waltz on Newcity Lit!

I'm a big fan of Enright - here are my reviews of some of her other books:
What Are You Like?
The Wig My Father Wore
The Gathering (best place to start if you haven't read her before)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Rin Tin Tin

My review of Susan Orlean's Rin Tin Tin on Newcity. Goddamnit, can she write.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Literature Map?

I found this website (via Flavorwire), called Literature Map in which you type in an author, then it shows you a bunch of other authors who people who like your author also like?  Or something.  I'm not really sure but it's mildly amusing.  I typed in my all-time favorite, Margaret Atwood, naturally, and here's what I got:

Then I clicked on Zadie Smith and got this:
I'm not crazy about Wally Lamb but otherwise seems reasonable. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Font size

Great article on Slacktory re: the ratio of authors names to their book titles.  They show a few examples of authors of increasing fame and also of increasing font size - check out this progression of Michael Chabon's covers:


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Twilight belt

Found this awesome infograph on Goodreads re: who loves Twilight and who doesn't.  Interesting, no?  I'm in Illinois, which, as a light blue, I can only assume doesn't totally hate it.  No surprise that it's read by 12x more women than men.  I don't really understand why Utah is singled out - 6th most readers? Who cares? 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Oh, the Humanities!

Last weekend, my friend MZ and I went to a couple of events in the Chicago Humanities Festival - we saw Jonathan Franzen (and Isabel Wilkerson) and Joshua Foer. 

Franzen and Wilkerson were winning some kind of award - there was a HUGE crowd with what I figure must have been Chicago's most ardent readers.  Also some of Chicago's most ardent queue-ers.  These lunatics were trying to make this crazy-long line, and then when they opened the door, it all went to shit, and lots of people got very, very upset.  I never saw so many old people get so distressed about line management.  You'd have thought we were in a war-time bread line. 

I really thought seeing Franzen was going to be the highlight of the day, but I most enjoyed Joshua Foer's chat - that probably shouldn't come as a surprise - I was completely obsessed with his book, Moonwalking with Einstein, ever since I read it earlier this year for Newcity.   He was very charming, smart and funny - it's such an interesting topic (memory)...  As in the book, the real challenge is actually supporting why it's even worth trying to develop the memory when there are some many external memory storage areas available (ie, smart phones, computers, etc.  Remember when you were a kid and you knew all your best friends' phone numbers?  Now I barely know my own husband's because it's stored in my phone.)  He took another crack at answering that and came up with a pretty good answer - he think that as external memory devises become more and more prevalent, we may discover the impact on creation - he thinks that memories are the "raw data" that lead to creativity and innovation.  Makes sense. 

I also enjoyed listening to Wilkerson - I was only vaguely aware of her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, about the great migration - but, I bought a copy and look forward to reading it. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Sunday, October 09, 2011

19th Wife

My husband's been amusing himself with the repeated phrase, "One's enough!" while I've been reading The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff.  Very funny.  However, nineteen is an intolerable number of wives, and the repetition of this number throughout this novel about polygamy is a continual reminder of an incomprehensible number of marriages.

Ebershoff tells parallel stories of two women who were (approximately) the 19th wives.  One is based on the real-life figure of Ann Eliza Young, who was married to early Later Day Saints prophet Brigham Young; the other is (the fictitious) BeckyLyn, jailed and accused of murdering her polygamous husband in rural, present-day Utah. 

Ann Eliza
The Ann Eliza narrative provides an eye-opening history of the formation of what is now the Mormon religion, and, not inconsequentially, the expansion of America into the west.  Ann Eliza was married, against her will, to Young (age 67), and then, as one might imagine, largely neglected and abandoned, being, more likely, the the 26th or possibly 52nd of 55ish wives.  After a court battle to divorce Young, she wrote a book (also called the 19th Wife) and had a popular lecturing tour to talk about life in her former community. 

Although the Ann Eliza chapters are historically interesting, they're also a little boring, and I ended up skimming a lot of the ho-hum bits re: tilling the unforgiving soil of Utah etc. of which I could not give two shits.

The modern tale is more interesting, told from the perspective of Jordan, a young man who was excommunicated, or forcibly expelled from his LDS household, as boys often are (to eliminate possible rivals from the marriage pool.)  After years of struggle, Jordan has managed to get his footing, but gets pulled back into his former life when his mother is accused of murdering his father, and he begins investigating to find out what really happened.  Jordan is a charming, loveable character with enough distance to guide the reader through what may be a first-time view into this very particular slice of Americana. 
Brigham Young

The book is frequently cited as raising many "questions" about faith and religious practice.  At least for me, as I have fairly established views on polygamy, Ebershoff's book did not cause me to raise any questions but rather helped solidify my opinions about polygamy, at least as practiced for religious purposes. 

Ebershoff does some interesting things with switching narratives and including bits as if from Wikipedia, 19th c. newpapers, interviews, letters, a BYU thesis, ect.  Typeface and even the odd illustration made the reading experience a bit richer.  Personally I thought the book sort of walked a tight balance between the sort of salacious schlocky-ness of best-sellers to more thoughtful literature, but, at the end of the day, the truth is that I found it pretty hard to put down, and, aside from the skimming I might have done, an engrossing story. 

A favorite part:
I can't tell you what Kelly was thinking, but I was thinking, Look at this girl. LDS through and through. BYU rah rah rah. Rise, all loyal Cougars and hur your challenge to the foe. No coffee, no tea, no Diet Coke, never a drink or a smoke or a hit, temple garments as white as Wasatch snow, Relief Society chick, missionary missy [...] Here she was, Kelly Dee, of hearty Pioneer stock, always well loved, always loving, three years from marriage, four from motherhood, Sister Kelly, who probably plans for week in advance when it's her turn to stand up in church and bear witness, Sister Kelly, Who probably keeps a to-do list clipped to her fridge, who probably spends Sunday nights shampooing those waves of blond hair, so clean, so hardworking, a human honeybee, she of the Chosen people, of the desert kingdom, of the Saints. Yes, here she was, sitting in a crappy office chair helping kids like me. And not just helping, because there are people who are like, Oh, you poor thing, and cluck their tongues, and maybe give you a dollar, but they don't understand and don't want to understand.  And then there are people who are like, Oh, you poor thing, now come and meet my God, He is the only way. But not Kelly - she wasn't just helping, assisting, offering a hand. No, she was researching, reading, learning, talking, understanding. Working hard to understand, wanting to understand, telling herself that's the most important thing she can do.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


When M & I go on vacation, we really like going to bookstores.  On our recent trip to the Northwest, we must have gone to at LEAST 10 bookstores, and I got a nice little pile of books.  Lately I've been thinking about writing when and where I get my books, because I usually find them at interesting places, not just Amazon or the local big box store.

Our favorite bookstore in Seattle was probably the Elliott Bay Book Co, which is a gorgeous bookstore with a fabulous cafe and really nice places to sit and read and nice folks that bring in their dogs and let you pet them.  This bookstore was really elegantly organized and I really liked how they arranged their recommended books.  We also went to a small bookstore in Pike's Place that had mostly used mysteries and sci-fi and this totally bizarre owner who sang opera at us and, yes... scared us a little.  He was partly mad-bookstore-genius and partly just wacky.  Anyway, I do like a good mystery and found a PD James and he recommended this Donna Leon person, who I've never read before.  God help me if I don't mind reading Patricia Cornwell every now and then...

Octavia Butler I haven't read before but she has some Seattle connection (maybe she's from there?)  Anywho, I picked up Fledgling at another shop and look forward to reading that soon. 

I think I got that What French Women Know at Elliott Bay.  I'm hoping it's better than What French People Like and Why French Ladies Don't Get Fat or whatever it's called...

Zadie Smith I just love.  I can't believe I haven't read that book of essays yet.  I also got Blood Red Road out there but I finished it and gave it to my friend before we left.  These all look like great books to read on vacation but unfortunately I didn't get to them all, only about half-way through the Cornwell and now I have other reading obligations that I must finish first.  Ah, there's never enough time!  Or, vacation time! 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Famous authors on zip lines

Ha! This is really funny. I Heart Conan O'Brien, but I do not Heart zip lines! I rode some once when I was on vacation in Costa Rica. It's really terrifying!

Monday, September 05, 2011


I read a compelling review for Sister in the
NY Times book review section. It's written by British author Rosamund Lupton and was apparently quite popular in England last year.

It's a story of a woman who's sister is killed (not a spoiler, happens right away) so she goes to London to find out what happened. Told mostly in 2nd person, Sister is like a letter to the dead sister, a chronology of the events told by the living.

It's a good mystery novel and really wrapped me in - Lupton does some interesting things with the narrative and the POV and writes skillfully.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Postmistress and The Report

Moi's sister gave moi The Postmistress for moi's birthday. It is a lovely book about how to, basically, live your life when terrible things are happening in the world. Most of the characters in this book live in Cape Cod during WWII, and one character is an American journalist who works with Edward R. Murrow in London. To various extremes, the characters address this theme of what-to-do? Writer Sarah Blake's thesis is to be aware, which, generally, yes, is a good idea.

I found the actual postmistress, who is ostensibly the main character, at least judging by the title, an extremely strange protagonist, with whom I did not identify at all even though we are clearly meant to identify with her. Early on she discloses that there was a piece of mail which she did not deliver, a shocking revelation to people who believe in the US Postal Service but perhaps not to anyone who's ever dealt with the US Postal Service. She also has an oockie doctor's visit to prove she's a virgin and provide "proof" to her mister-friend, who will presumably be impressed by the information.

Descriptions of the London tube station shelters were of particular interest to me, mainly because I think that's ingenious and I also love LOVE LOVE Henry Miller's drawings of the same.

By coincidence, after I read The Postmistress I read a new book called The Report, a fiction book by Jessica Francis Kane based on the actual event of 173 dying in a London tube station during the blitz - not the result of bombing, but of a crush of human bodies. I only ended up reading about half of it because the middle part was a bit dull, with all the excitement of journalism performed 40 years after the event. And then, by another coincidence, I found a 2001 article in the New Yorker about this phenomenon of people getting crushed, which I never really could/can wrap my head around. I also find it difficult to finish this article because it's making me feel all claustrophobic.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Animal Dreams

The title of Animal Dreams refers to (and I don't think I'm ruining it for you by telling) one character's theory that animals dreams are not that complicated - that they most likely dreams about what they do all day. One of the themes of this book is that humans are like animals, we're motivated by sex and basic needs and mostly sex. I don't agree with that, but Barbara Kingsolver makes a good case for it.
The baby signed and stirred in his crib. At seven months, he was just the size of a big jackrabbit - the same amount of meat. The back of my scalp and neck prickled. It's an involuntary muscle contraction that causes that, setting the hair follicles on edge; if we had manes they would bristle exactly like a growling dog's. We're animals. We're born like every other mammal and we live our whole lives around disguised animal thoughts. There's no sense pretending. Tomorrow, I thought, or the next day, or the day after that, I would have sex with Loyd Peregrina.

In Animal Dreams, Codi returns to her hometown after a long absence to watch over her inattentive father. Kingsolver tells Codi's story really beautifully, letting details spill out over time, and even including an environmental twist without lecturing the reader (I thought this book had a lot in common with the great My Year of Meats and Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole). Codi starts dating her old high school boyfriend, an Apache, who takes her to see old ruins of American Indian sites - Kingsolver describes these marvelous places so vividly I wanted to take an immediate road trip to Arizona. (see: Kinishba!) I have a vague memory of reading something by Flannery O'Connor that made me feel the same way but I can't for the life of me remember the name.

While Animals Dreams is unbelievably beautifully written, it's depressing as hell. Among the hands-off parenting atrocities practiced by her widowed father was listening to his teen-aged daughter have a miscarriage in the bathroom and then bury the fetus in the yard without interfering. For example.

But then there's this:
I'd finished my shopping in a few minutes, and while I waited for Emelina to revision her troops for the week I stood looking helplessly at the cans of vegetables and soup that all carried some secret mission. The grocery shelves seemed to have been stocked for the people of Grace with the care of a family fallout shelter. I was an outsider to this nurturing. When the cashier asked, "Do you need anything else?" I almost cried. I wanted to say, "I need everything you have."

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Stuff Parisians Like

Stuff White People Like started as a blog and then quickly made a book deal. Then, white people like me became less enamored with it when people started pointing out that it's kinda racist. (What, people of color don't like recycling?)

Stuff Parisians Like
is obviously capitalizing on the 'Stuff fame and also started as a blog. Parisians, as you might imagine, are described as dull moderates that "like" feeling a sense of superiority in all things. I love cultural insider-info - so bits about how the last two digits on the license plate indicate the owner's home town (Paris is 75), that a three-day-"scruff" of unshaved beard is considered the height of sexiness, and that San Pelegrino is ordered as "San Pé" are the details I love.

But, like Stuff White People Like, it's problematic. Stuff Parisians Like is riddled with a rather off-putting masculinity that ridicules relationships, "Testosterone-Deprived Males", and claims all Parisian women are uptight prudes. The author writes, "...Parisian men get sick of begging their women for oral gratification" and "foreign girls are different. They can dance. They drink. They have fun." Ick.

The biggest offense Olivier Magney gave was not claiming that Parisians no longer drink enough wine (surprise: he's a sommelier) but that he used the word "retarded" to indicate that something was uncool.

Grow up, putain.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

March by G. Brooks

I have a long history with March, but just read it myself a few weeks ago. After it came out I read some reviews and knew my sister would love it, so I gave it to her and she did, but I wasn't too jazzed to read it myself. Then I saw a free copy over at the community center and thought that was a sign. I love found books. Also, it DID win the Pulitzer in 2006.

It's told (mostly) from the POV of Mr. March, the father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. If you don't recall, in Little Women, the young women and their mother are alone while their dear father is serving as a chaplain during the American Civil War. It is a fine book that I loved very much as a child and have not read since then, but now I recall it being sort of treacly.

March is really quite brilliant because what Brooks does is sort of merge the character of Mr. March and Louisa May Alcott's father, Amos Bronson Alcott (surely something LM Alcott did herself, at least to some extent). Amos was a rather fascinating person - a Transcendentalist who was pals with Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, a vegan, a starter of vegan communes, an abolitionist and an educator. Mr. March is all of these things as well. He's a kind and thoughtful man who quickly decides that he must spin the truth to his Penelopean wife and daughters, shielding them from the horrors he sees (and sometimes commits) and instead painting a picture of bon amie with his comrades at arms.

Something Brooks is extremely skillful at is weaving back and forth in time - she easily moves between Mr. March's experiences in the war to his interpretations to his family, to the time before the war as he traveled through the south to a later time, but still before the war when he met his wife and back and forth again. To change the timeframe so much without loosing or annoying the reader is pretty remarkable.

Just about when I was starting to question this white, male authority figure of Mr. March, Brooks swiftly (I don't think I ruin it for you by telling you) turns the book on it's end and switches the POV to Mrs. March, who is also hiding her true emotions. She is full of anger and resentment with her husband for the rather selfish act of volunteering for the war and leaving her with the hardships of raising her daughters in near poverty. He describes, for example, his wife's announcement of joining the troops with tearful adulation. She says:
He looked me full in the face, he saw my tears, and he ignored them and did as he pleased. And then I in my turn had to pretend to be pleased by my hero of a husband. When he stepped down, and came to me, I could not speak. I took his hand and dug my nails into the flesh of it, wanting to hurt him for the hurt he was inflicting on me.

I am not alone in this. I only let him do to me what men have ever done to women: march off to empty glory and hollow acclaim and leave us behind to pick up the pieces. The broken cities, the burned barns, the innocent injured beasts, the ruined bodies of the boys we bore and the men we lay with.

Brooks also allows another woman, a slave, autonomy as well (in this case I will not ruin it for you!) In the end she turns the telling of the civil war, often a story about the brave, anti-slavery, white men from the north and retells it from the perspective of women and people of color. This isn't too different, in fact, from what LM Alcott does - her's is not a story of men and wars, but capable women in a society nearly lacking men. Brooks shows such a generosity to LM Alcott's story, by framing the events of Little Women as merely the outward performance of a loving, perfect, happy family (know any of those?), while what is really felt remains unsaid. What she ultimately does is make Little Women a richer story as well. Not an easy feat for any beloved treasure.

And now I think it's my duty to set this one free again to find the lucky arms of someone else.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Foe, by Coetzee

I read this great article on my new favorite website, Flavorwire, called "11 Great Literary Spinoffs" - you know, like Wide Sargasso Sea (a "spinoff" of Jane Eyre). Anyway, it mentioned Foe, which I had never heard of, by J.M. Coetzee - inspired by 1719's Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe - which I have no intention of reading. It was an intriguing enough post that I picked it up from the library right away.

Reading Foe might have been a slightly richer experience if I had read Robinson Crusoe, but, for me the wikipedia article seemed to suffice. What Coetzee does is write the book from the perspective of the female castaway in the story, Susan, as well as Crusoe's black companion, Friday. Told from this perspective, Coetzee reframes the story (generally acknowledged as a [white] man's triumphal conquering of strange lands and people's unknown) and exposes the colonialism of the story. When the castaways are rescued, Susan takes responsibility for the mute Friday and further questions the relationship between Friday and Crusoe.

To raise money, Susan tries to sell her story and confronts the inherent challenges of telling any history:

I am not a story, Mr. Foe. I may impress you as a story because I began my account of myself without preamble, slipping overboard into the water and striking out for the shore. But my life did not begin in the waves. There was a life before the water which stretched back to my desolate searchings in Brazil, then to the years when my daughter was still with me, and so on back to the day I was born. All of which makes up a story I do not choose to tell. I choose not to tell it because to no one, not even to you, do I owe proof that I am a substantial being with a substantial history in the world. ...I am a free woman who asserts her freedom by telling her story according to her own desire.

Coetzee's writing style reminded me a lot of Jeanette Winterson, who, in my small experience with her work tells a great story but also slips in a hefty dose of theory. I thought it was a really cleverly told story and I appreciated the thoughtful questioning about what it really means to attempt to tell or re-tell a story.

Saturday, July 09, 2011


In Luxe, 19th century teenagers dress up and pout, try to get laid while maintaining an air of respectability. It's a YA book by Anna Godbersen (Nom de plume? I'm too lazy to find out...) billed as a 19th century Gossip Girl. I read Gossip Girl, or tried to. It is essentially unreadable. At first I thought Luxe was merely painfully readable, but I'm now ready to downgrade that to unfinishable.

I do have to give Godbersen (if that is her real name) props (or snaps) for utilizing a rich vocabulary - I wouldn't be surprised if the average teenager reader had to make frequent trips to the dictionary. It's the plot that killing me, and my own lack of interest in vapidness. But, to each his own!

I grew up on the Sweet Valley High series and find it interesting how influential those books continue to be. If the authors of these new "bad girl" books were not directly influenced by Francine Pascal, her work has just sunk that deep into today's consciousness. For example:
Now, observing her family's ballroom from the mezzanine, her torso cinched beneath her flamenco dancer's red flounces to a perfect eighteen inches, she felt supremely confident that he would come. It was the evening of the Richmond Hayeses' ball, the evening when they reached their apotheosis as a top-drawer family - there was simply no place else to be. She was certain he would arrive shortly. Well, almost certain.
This is a spoiler, probably. I'm not going to finish it but it's pretty obvious that the "good" sister, Elizabeth (He-Llo?!?) is going to fake her own death and move to California with her coachman boyfriend, thus allowing her younger, more daring sister Jessica, I mean, Diana, to marry her wealthy, roguish fiance and save the family from financial ruin because those two are in love anyway.

If I am incorrect, please let me know! Anyone ready any great YA books lately? I would love to know!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


I read this great book called Divergent by Veronica Roth. Roth is a recent college graduate, which is infuriating, if you're like me and get infuriated by the success of youth. (grrr! Why aren't I successful? Plus, even if I do get successful, I won't be youthful anymore!)

Anyway, I won't say much because I don't want to spoil it, but it takes place in the futuristic burnt-out Chicago, where the Lake is actually a Marsh, and society is split into different factions. When you're 16, you choose your faction, and that's your faction For Life. And, if you get expelled from your faction or whatever you're "factionless" and that's like Worse Than DEATH. Because you have to clean up garbage and stuff.

The main character is born into Abnegation, which is a selfless faction that tries to be really empathetic and helpful, but she decides to go into this other faction called Dauntless, which is all about bravery and strength. If they ever go somewhere, they run. If they get on a train, they only jump on or off (I never quite figured out what they would do if the train happened to be stopped when they arrived, but, they'd probably just hang back and then jump on when it started moving.)

It's quite similar to the Hunger Games because once you choose a faction, you have to go through an initiation to prove yourself and, if you don't make it... FACTIONLESS. (Plus a strong female character, feats of strength, love interest in unlikely character...)

I think Chicagoans are going to straight up LOVE it - I really enjoyed the parts that had to do with The City. And, fans of the Hunger Games are likely to be on board too. The only bummer is, I discovered HG right at the end, when all the books were already published, but the next two in this 3 part series haven't been published yet. *frowny face*

Maybe Dauntless was formed with good intentions, with the right ideals and the right goals. But it has strayed far from them. And the same is true of Erudite, I realize. A long time ago, Erudite pursued knowledge and ingenuity for the sake of doing good. Now they pursue knowledge and ingenuity with greedy hearts. I wonder if the other factions suffer from the same problem. I have not thought about it before.

Despite the depravity I see in Dauntless, though, I could not leave it. It isn't only because the thought of living factionless, in complete isolation, sounds like a fate worse than death. It is because, in the brief moments that I have loved it here, I saw a faction worth saving. Maybe we can become brave and honorable again.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Learning to Read

I loved this article in the New Yorker by Salvatore Scibona, How I Learned to Read. He writes about how he went to a unique college in New Mexico, St. John’s College where they focus on the classics. (Anybody heard of this place?)

Got me thinking about where I learned to read... I read a lot when I was a kid and just about anything I could get my hands on. I wasn't really a critical reader 'til about grad school, though (hence my love of Ayn Rand in high school*).

From How I Learned to Read:

By senior year at St. John’s, we were reading Einstein in math, Darwin in lab, Baudelaire in French tutorial, Hegel in seminar. Seminar met twice a week for four years: eight o’clock to ten at night or later, all students addressed by surname. On weekends, I hung out with my friends. The surprise, the wild luck: I had friends. One sat in my room with a beer and “The Phenomenology of Spirit,” reading out a sentence at a time and stopping to ask, “All right, what did that mean?” The gravity of the whole thing would have been laughable if it hadn’t been so much fun, and if it hadn’t been such a gift to find my tribe.

In retrospect, I was a sad little boy and a standard-issue, shiftless, egotistical, dejected teen-ager. Everything was going to hell, and then these strangers let me come to their school and showed me how to read. All things considered, every year since has been a more intense and enigmatic joy.



Saturday, June 04, 2011

Emerald City, Jennifer Egan

I am, of course, I big Jennifer Egan fan and loved her collection of stories in Emerald City. All of the stories were terrific but there were definitely a few that stood out. This collection seemed to have a focus on far-flung travel, which was kind of interesting. The first story, Why China?, is about a family on vacation in China who run into a man the dad knew and distrusted in America. I also really loved a story called They Stylist, about a group of people shooting a young model (from Rockford, IL - shades of Look at Me) in some beach location.

Egan's made a bit of a kerfuffle recently, not just for winning the Pulitzer but making some perhaps ill-thought-out remarks about fellow writers, for which she has apologized. I find it interesting that there a quite a few celebrity apologizes floating around right now - like Lars von Trier and his ridiculous Nazi comments at Cannes. Seems like a lot of people are all, Let's forgive Lars von Trier already, but I rather respect France's (collective?) decision to say, Lars von Trier, you're out of our lives. Jennifer Egan, on the other hand, is very forgivable.

Flavorwire, my new favorite website, claims Egan and Jennifer Weiner had a "feud" - I wouldn't go that far, but Weiner did groan (appropriately) at Egan's comments. The same story recalled a(n actual) feud between Colson Whitehead and Richard Ford. Apparently Whitehead said amusing things about Ford and Ford actually SPIT on him at some event. Now I'm really paranoid when I write a critical review for my new gig at Newcity that someone's going to spit on me.

That wouldn't happen, right?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Girl with Curious Hair

It is time to admit some things. 1. I do not like David Foster Wallace's writing, I just don't. (There, I said it.) 2. I don't like reading about animal abuse. Which is why I stopped reading Girl with Curious Hair abruptly around page 60.

All this D.F.W. talk, re: the posthumous Pale King etc. made me think I should give his work another try, and I read an interesting review of Girl with Curious Hair (1989).

I've been having a hard time finding something great to read - if you can suggest something...?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

Ugh, I wrote this review and then it got lost in some Blogger shenanigans and I don't feel like re-writing it. Anyway, I really liked it. Next up: Sexing the Cherry!


Apparently not too long ago it was not considered ookee to send a lock of your hair to a lover or acquaintance. The New York Public Library has quite a collection of authors' hair! This, it will not surprise you to hear, is Walt Whitman's!

via Flavorwire

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Started Early, Took My Dog

I've read everything Kate Atkinson's written ever since I fell in love with Behind the Scenes at the Museum about 10 years ago. With the exception of one book, everything is terrific.

Her last three books are serials, based around a private detective named Jackson Brodie. They all have a ridiculous number of characters and, if you're like me, you might find them hard to keep straight, although I have resisted, so far, creating complex trees and graphs on the back page, like I do with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salmon Rushdie.

What's really interesting about these three books is that they read sort of like (if you'll pardon my innate snobbery) middle-brow action novels along the lines of say, Clancey or Cornwell. Her earlier work, if you ask me, is much more academically literary. However, even though in terms of tone and pacing they have this more "pedestrian" (not that there's anything wrong with that) impression; thematically they are extremely sophisticated. I suspect that this is purposeful, and she's making a very specific choice to write in this way.

Atkinson leans heavily on her literary sources, this book has frequent references to Emily Dickenson and a traditional British poem that begins "For want of a nail the shoe was lost..." as well as the Latin phrase Et In Arcadia Ego (made popular in a 17th century painting by Nicolas Poussin). These themes (of death, the influence of the minuscule) repeat across the large cast of characters and what draws them together is not only their coincidental experiences but their sort of ... paradigmatic realities.

Atkinson refers again and again to violence toward women and allows this popular novel (heavily contrasted to Steig Larsson, who gets unjustly credited with exposing violence toward women in his work, if you ask me) to illustrate the extreme and subtle ways in which women face violence every day. For example, one character is a policewoman whose male colleagues over and over again refer to prostitutes as "working girls". Each time, she mutters how she is also a "working woman" -- a statement so lost on her coworkers they never respond to her.

Many characters are responding to current events out of regret for how they handled a similar event in their pasts. An elderly actress suffering from early dementia relives almost simultaneously an affair and pregnancy from her youth. Her chapters are poetic:
She had that funny feeling of darkness again, of the curtain of Northern Lights before her eyes. She was on a ship plowing through the dark waters. All about her was desperation. The spars breaking, the mainmast cracking, the sails hanging in rags. The figure-head of the ship was a naked baby howling in the wind. There were babies everywhere, hanging on to the rigging for dear life, clinging to the sides of the ship as it began to sink into the icy, oily sea. Tilly must save them, she must save them all, but she can't, she is going down with the ship. Mercy on us! We split, we split!

That last bit coming from The Tempest, naturally. You see what I mean?

Read an excerpt.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Moonwalking with Einstein

My review of Moonwalking with Einstein is up at New City!

It's a great book, I really recommend it. I became absolutely obsessed with this book - and, it does have some great tips for memorizing. I can memorize long lists of words now using the technique in the book.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Strong Poison

I found Strong Poison in this fabulous bookstore in Milwaukee a few weeks ago - I'd probably put that bookstore on my list of top five bookstores, which, off the top of my head are:

1. The Strand, NYC
2. Powells, Portland Oregon
3. Women and Children First, Chicago
4. I can't remember the name, Mendocino, CA
5. City Lights, San Francisco

OK, well, it's definitely in my top ten.

I've been meaning to mark the provenance of all my books, but I always forget. But, I digress... Strong Poison is by Dorothy Sayers, and, by all rights, I should have read it before Gaudy Night (and so should you!)

In it, we're immediately thrown into the trail of one Harriet Vane, a mystery writer herself, who's been accused of murdering her ex. Our hero, Peter Whimsey, watching the trial, decides that Harriet is NOT guilty and also that he would like to marry her.

Despite the sexist overtones of er, our hero, Sayers's book has charming early feminist tones as well - she addresses sexism in the workplace, domestic service and the difficulty of detecting whilst female. A woman finds herself at a loss when, hot on the trail, she doesn't have a conceivable excuse, as a woman, to linger on the street, aside from gazing longingly in shop windows for a certain amount of time. She imagines all the ways a man or a boy could lurk indefinitely.

Vane and her ex-beau (fictional) were part of the (actual) Bloomsbury crowd. The Bloomsburies are a fascinating group of artists who, in this book come off as slightly wacky almost-hippies. In a way, I suppose they were - they were experimenting not just with different ways of creating art, but non-normative social structures and ways of living. These interactions with the aristocratic but easy-going Whimsey are awfully funny.

There's also a hilarious bit having to do with "Spiritualism" - another popular idea of the time, that you could communicate easily with departed souls and whatnot.

Sayers is a very witty writer and her language is just a pleasure to read - Strong Poison is a great example of her work, although, I do have one small complaint, and I'm about to drop a major spoiler, so stop reading if you intend to read it unless you have a really bad memory like I do. OK, seriously. Look away! I'm going to start a new paragraph and then I'm going to drop the spoiler.



Alright, you're with me? So, what happens is, her ex is poisoned, right? And, it turns out, his last meal was eaten entirely with someone else, and then he had tea with Harriet. But, the someone else didn't get sick, and, it turns out, that person had built up a fuckin' immunity to the poison. Come on! That's annoying. You could never figure that out. So, that was really lame, but, otherwise I couldn't put the book down, it was really great.

Friday, February 25, 2011

When the Killing's Done

Oh boy, my review of When the Killing's Done is up on Newcity Lit. And both my reviews are in the print copy if you happen to see it on the street in Chicago!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is Aimee Bender's latest. It's really typical of her work - beautifully written, full of pathos, very girly (did you write this book just for me, A.B.?) and has an element of magic.

Magic isn't the right word but there's something about her work that's fantastical. It might even be unique. (Gasp!) Like, in Willful Creatures, she tells a story about a woman who has these little potato children, and it's not like it's a metaphor or anything, she just has. potatoes. for. children.

In this book, the young protagonist, Rose, can taste people's emotions in the food they prepare. Mainly she's eating food prepared by her mother (interestingly, she never eats food prepared by her father), whose sadness and other emotions nearly destroy her. She tastes rage, tiredness, guilt, etc., but not just from the cook, but from the farmer or the ground itself. She eventually can tell what state or which factory her food was processed in. She takes to pushing her food around and eating junk food. One of the perks (?) of the state of the food industry is that Rose can rather easily find food that no human has created - that machines mix, process, assemble and package. She saves her money for machine-made food like other children save money for toys.
The bread distributor, the bread factory, the wheat, the farmer. The butter, which had a dreary tang to it. When I checked the package, I read that it came from a big farm in Wisconsin. The cream held a thinness, a kind of metallic bumper aftertaste. The milk - weary. All of those parts distant, crowded, like the far-off sound of an airplane, or a car parking, all hovering in the background, foregrounded by the state of the maker of the food.

This book was almost painful to read because I, like just about every American woman, have my particular food issues (x 1000) and reading about this much emotionality wrapped up around food was a bit overwhelming.

Bender's book isn't a one-trick pony, however nifty that trick might be. The story about Rose's family would have been pretty interesting without her interpretive powers. The first (and only) taste of a sandwich made by her brother reveals a horrifying emptiness, the autistic-like sibling is a mystery. (Here's a hint: Quantum Physics are involved!)

Here's one of my favorite lines:
Several of the girls at the party had had sex, something which sounded appealing but only if it could happen with blindfolds in a time warp plus amnesia.

Brilliant! Just like the rest of the book!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad

I'm a big fan of Jennifer Egan and have read all of her novels. Look at Me is absolutely brilliant, The Keep is great, and The Invisible Circus... isn't bad either!

Welcome to the Good Squad is her latest, and it's at least as good as my favorite (Look at Me). The main thing I love about Egan is she's soooo theoretical. When I was studying Art History, Look at Me really hit the spot because it's about visual images and definitions. At this point in my life, it turns out, I'm vaguely into quantum physics (in a theoretical, non-mathematical kind of way...) and, you won't believe what theme slips in to A Visit... Ok, I'll tell you: Quantum physics!

I'm working on a theory that we're in a period of Quantum Mechanical Angst right now, like, as a society, so it's no small surprise (according to my working theory) that this idea is popping up lately in art, literature, and theater.*

Egan's quanta explorations have mainly to do with Time. A number of characters slip forward and backward in time as she chooses parts of their stories that create who they are. At one point, one of the characters comes out and nearly quotes this book on quantum physics that I read recently:
Here was the bottom line: if we human beings are information processing machines, reading X's and O's and translating that information into what people oh so breathlessly call "experience," and if I had access to that same information via cable TV and any number of magazines that I browsed through at Hudson news for four- and five-hour stretches on my free days (my record was eight hours, including the half hour I spent manning the register during the lunch break of one of the younger employees, who thought I worked there) -- If I had not only the information but the artistry to shape that information using the computer inside my brain (real computers scared me; if you can find Them, then They can find you, and I didn't want to be found), then, technically speaking, was I not having all the same experiences those other people were having?

Egan employees various story-telling techniques, like a chapter in the form of an article written by a slightly disturbed hipster about a movie star and (guess what?) Quantum Mechanics! Another chapter is famously in the form of a power point presentation - it's surprisingly moving. Like so many authors today, Egan includes some txting language. I think it's interesting how so many artists today are starting to explore this evolution (for better or worse) in language.

Another theme she tackles is music today - its inspiration, creation and distribution. One of the characters, a producer, laments how so much music today is so cleaned up you can't hear its soul any more. I whole-heartedly agree. Egan's fittingly created a playlist on 8Track that's meant to accompany the novel.

Welcome to the Goon Squad incorporates some short stories from over the years - I remember one very clearly from the New Yorker about a publicist who goes to a unnamed country to improve the image of an unnamed dictator. I just stumbled upon another one if you're interested...

There's truly so much to process that I would like to read it again soon. I hope you'll become a Jennifer Egan fan if you're not one already - she's such a terrific writer and she requires an engaged reader.

* And math, for all I know.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

I was inspired...

I was inspired to DRAW (which I'm not very good at, as you can see!) by Super Sad True Love Story. One of the characters was described as wearing a green jumpsuit that read SUK DIK on the front. He's playing with his äppärät.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

XVI - my review!

My review of XVI, a YA novel by Julia Karr, is over on Newcity Lit. They have TONS of book reviews - check it out!

Monday, January 31, 2011

Super Sad True Love Story

We read Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart, for book club. I really enjoyed it and encourage everyone to read it - it was really hilarious and such a novel of our times (even though it's futuristic!)

It's written fromt he perspective of Lenny Abramov's diary and the electronic correspondence of Eunice Park. They live in the (not-so-distant) future, when everyone wears an äppärät (a device worn around the neck that makes an iphones look like an Apple II) which most people live their lives through - shopping, communicating, and assessing the vital stats - credit and "fuckability" - of everyone else.

Lenny works for Post-Human services, which helps HNWI (high net worth individuals) extend their lives indefinitely. Terrified of death, he's drawn to the young, lithe, Eunice and practically worships her into being his girlfriend. I was a bit leary that this was going to be one of those old-man-resurrected-by-youthful-tail tales, almost always completely unbelievable and largely if not exclusively written by aging old men, but Eunice is such an unlikable character she hardly resurrects anyone.

Shteyngart's novel is less sci-fi and more of a dead-on satire of today's culture. Consumerism, corporations infecting politics, hyper-sexualized people (he writes about "Juicy-Pussy for Men" and Onionskin pants - clear pants!), youth obsession - all are examined to hilarious (and terrifying!) extremes:
At least your Lenny lvoes you so much he'll never ever cheat on you. I can't understand why you're feeling so insecure about him. So he's brain-smart. Who cares??? It's not like he's some superstar Media guy or VP and LandOLakes. So he REALLY, REALLY READS instead of scans. Big whoop. Maybe you guys can read to each other in bed or something. And then you can sew your own clothes. HA HA HA. Anyway, looking good is the new smart, and I don't think you should have kids with him because you'll have really ugly children.
This book reminded a lot of us in book club of Feed - in which "book smart" intelligence is not only undervalued but ridiculed. What's coming across is a real sense of anxiety from some writers about the future of, I think, not just reading (physical) books, but reading at all.

I loved the juxtiposition of Lenny's style with Eunice's, and their telling of the same events. Shteyngart's structure and plotting were really clever and I admired it so much. There's actually so much to discuss I can't really fit it into a blog post and I don't want to give away to much of the story except to say: You must read this!