Thursday, December 27, 2012

Top 5 Books of 2012


These are what I published in Newcity... I have some other top 5s there that *I* think are amusing.

Top 5 Books (published in 2012)
NW” by Zadie Smith
A Hologram for the King” by Dave Eggers
The Age of Miracles” by Karen Thompson Walker
HHhH” by Laurent Binet
Treasure Island!!!” by Sara Levine


I read Junot Diaz's This is how you Lose Her after I wrote that.... I really it belongs on the list.  I suppose I might bump Treasure Island!!! to get it on there.

But, my Top 5 Books I Read (Not necessarily published in 2012) were:
The ColonyJillian Weise
Swamplandia, Karen Russell
A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers
The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker
The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides


Top 5 YAs I Read (Not necessarily published in 2012):
SpeakLaurie Halse Anderson
Why We Broke Up, Daniel Handler
Beauty QueensLibba Bray
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
Little Brother, Cory Doctorow

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars

I've read nothing but great things about The Fault in Our Stars all year long, so I finally read it!  Hazel is a teenager that has had thyroid cancer for most of her life.  Her lungs don't work well and she always has an oxygen tank with her. She meets Augustus Waters at a young person's cancer support group and they fall in love.  Well, they fall in love carefully, because Hazel doesn't want to break the heart of Gus if she dies.  Mortality is a constant companion in this book - Hazel will not likely live very long.  Gus is also a cancer survivor - he had cancer in his leg, which was amputated.

One of the most influential books I read this year was The Colony, so I've been extra-attentive to narratives that feature people with disabilities, and when authors choose to include these narratives in their books.  I think it must be a difficult decision to make, because, obviously they would want to avoid any mere tokenism - I think books like The Fault in Our Stars and Beauty Queens did a great job of including differently abled characters who are much much more than their disabilities.  

Hazel loves a novel called An Imperial Affliction, which ends in the middle of a sentence.  She loves the novel, but really wonders what happened to the characters - Gus helps her in an adventure to meet the author.  Probably shouldn't say much else with out dropping some major spoilers.  Although... I did spend a lot of time dreading the idea that the novel would end in the middle of a sentence and I would tear out my hair and catch something on fire.  I'll spare you the agony and tell you (spoiler): it doesn't.  

Like the other Green novel I read, these characters are idealized - they're smarter, wittier, more thoughtful teenagers than you or I were (even though you and I like to think we were that smart and witty).  Hazel says, without irony, that her parents are her best friends, and spends a fair amount of time worrying what will happen to them if she dies.  She says something like, "The only thing worse than being a kid with cancer is having a kid with cancer."  Lines like that kind of take me out of the story a little bit, maybe because I'm a cynical a-hole, but I just can't see many 16 years olds with that type of actualization.  I mean... I just don't think kids can or should be best friends with their parents.

If you read any reviews of The Fault in Our Stars, what you'll find is a breakdown of how many tears were shed throughout the book.  I did, I'll admit, shed one or two tears.  Here, for your reading enjoyment, are some quotes:
This book made my eyes insanely puffy for days because THE CRYING. SO. MUCH. CRYING. via 
The Fault in Our Stars had me laughing and crying, then laughing more and crying more. via 
The ending. Oh, wow, that got me going. DANG IT, I WILL NOT CRY AGAIN. via 
This has, hands-down been my favorite book of the year and was three and half hours of crying, laughing and coming to grips with the ubiquitous fact of life: we all face oblivion all the time and one of these days, we will have to embrace it.  (via That one's from a dude.)
Of course, I need the obligatory cried-my-eyes-out line.  Because I totally did.  It got really messy, and I snotted a little on my sweater sleeves because I couldn’t bring myself to get up and get a tissue.  I couldn’t pull myself away. via

Aside from making you cry like a little girl, you'll probably laugh a little too.  Green is legitimately funny, and it's hard to write funny.  Gus and Hazel poke fun at stereotypes of kids with cancer, like this:
"Like, are you familiar with the trope of the stoic and determined cancer victim who heroically fights
cancer her with inhuman strength and never complains or stops smiling even at the very end, et cetera?" 
"Indeed," I said "They are kindhearted and generous souls whose every breath is an Inspiration to Us All.  They're so strong! We admire them so!"
That's funny. And, he writes from a GIRL'S point of view and didn't make me want to GAG????  Unprecedented.  

via

Well, I guess I've done my part to perpetuate the idea that this book ends in tears, tear, tears!  But, seriously, you probably will cry.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Beauty Queens

Beauty Queens (2011) by Libba Bray is a hilarious novel about a bunch of beauty queens on their way to a pageant, whose plane crashes on a desert island.  I liked it so much that I don't really want to say that much about it.... it's a fun, feminist, romp, wherein the beauty queens transform from stereotypes of themselves to independent survivors thriving on an island against all odds.  I'll tell ya, I love nothing more than a survival story, it really captures my imagination to picture people (me?!?) getting by in the wild.  

Each surviving queen has a bit of a backstory - if I remember correctly, none of them was independently interested in becoming a beauty queen, most of them were doing it to satisfy a parent.  Not surprisingly, Bray includes a reality tv element (something tells me this woman is well schooled in ANTM and Honey Boo Boo and also I would like to meet her and become best friends) in the form of these guys who... I don't want to drop any spoilers because it really IS a fun read ... let's just say that some male characters are introduced, and the beauty queens are in danger, but one of the things I loved (tiny spoiler) is that the beauty queens never sit back and wait for a dude to get them out of a jam.

I guess this book is officially YA... I suppose it would be a fine book for YA readers, but categorizing it never entered my mind as I was reading.

Bray's cast of characters includes a couple of gay beauty queens, a beauty queen who used to be a boy, a deaf beauty queen and several beauty queens of color.  I loved that her book incorporated such a wide cast, putting all these women on equal footing and as equal contributors to the community they create on the island.  There's also a very strong anti-capitalism line, with repeated gags about commercialization and how the sale of so many products hinges on making women feel bad about their bodies or selves.
In school, they would tell you that life wouldn't come to you; you had to go out and make it your own.  But when it came to love, the message for girls seemed to be this: Don't. Don't go after what you want. Wait. Wait to be chosen, as if only in the eye of another could one truly find value. The message was confusing and infuriating. It was a shell game with no actual pea under the rapidly moving cups.
At book club, one of my friends picked up my copy of Beauty Queens, and thrust it in my face, saying, "Throw this out, immediately," (*gasp*) "and get the audio version, it's hilarious."  So, I have it on good authority that the audio copy is great, and read by Libba Bray herself.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Paper Towns

John Green has been getting crazy buzz this year - every YA blog that I read gushes about The Fault in Our Stars (the TEARS!  Oh, the sobbing that was recounted...)  So... I've been missing the boat on this Green fellow.

I snatched up a copy of Paper Towns (2008) at my local library to see what all the fuss was about.

In Paper Towns, Quentin (Q), is woken up in the middle of the night by his beautiful, slightly older neighbor, Margo, who he has naturally had a crush on his entire life.  Margo needs his help on this all-night adventure trip to exact revenge on her popular friends that have sort of double-crossed her.  Margo is a meticulous planner and has a great imagination, so the reader might get a little crush on her as well.  She gives Q a list that includes catfish, VEET, Vaseline, & Mountain Dew - and the mystery of their night unfolds for the reader just as it does for Q - what are they going to do with this bizarre list?  This all-night adventure, which is about the first 1/3 of the book, is really fun to read, and clips along at basically an "unputdownable" rate.

The next morning, Margo's gone - run away.  But, she's left a handful of clues that Q and his friends unravel and attempt to find this poor, lost girl.

I quite enjoyed reading Paper Towns.  Green crafts a good story, and includes some sophisticated themes that appeal to older readers like me, and, I'd imagine, gives younger readers access to some larger ideas to ponder.  "Paper Towns", for example, refers to non-existant towns that are put on maps as a kind of copyright test - if the false town shows up on another map, there's proof that someone just  plagiarized a map.  Margo sees people living paper lives - inconsequential and unimportant. She and Q live in Florida, not far from Disney World - in the created environment of that strange land, you can understand how a bright, existential kid could get the itch for something "real".  And Q learns some big-boy lessons about the impossibility of knowing someone - that his idealized girl-next-door is mere mortal with the breadth of human tragedy and triumph wound up in her teenage form:
The fundamental mistake I had always made-was this: Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.
Despite Q's little lesson about not idealizing his neighbor, Green's teens are hyper-idealized.  (I did finally read The Fault in our Stars, more on that later...) Green writes teenagers that have great relationships with the parents, are smart and witty, thoughtful and kind.  Q and his best boy pals are considerate, brilliant and helpful (do you know a lot of 17 year olds boys like that?)   I've heard tell that it's not that unusual for today's teenager to claim, with utter sincerity, that their parents ARE their best friends... I concede that the modern teenager might be a bit more sensitive than I and my friends were when I was a kid... but  I did find Green's teenagers eye-rollingly mature and witty.  His characters remind me of Daniel Handler's.  (Not surprisingly, Handler told me he liked Green's work when I interviewed him earlier this year.)  The alternative to my cynical criticism is that Green's teenager serves as a Guide to Good Teenaging to actual teenagers, as well as a romanticized image that teenagers and adults can "relate to".  In other words, I think his charming young people allow the reader to see their best selves as they inevitably relate to the characters.  I think if I had read this book when I was 16, I would have thought, "Yeah, I'm a lot like this kid..."  (even though I probably wasn't.)  So, in the end, I love that how his books have the power to inspire the reader to be a better person.
   "I just want to find her," I say, because I do. I want her to be safe, alive, found. The string played out. The rest is secondary.    
"Yeah, but--I don't know," Ben says. I can feel him looking over at me, being Serious Ben. "Just--Just remember that sometimes, the way you think about a person isn't the way they actually are. Like, I always thought Lacey was so hot and so awesome and so cool, but now when it comes to being with her it's not the exact same. People are different when you can smell them and see them up close, you know?" 
"I know that," I say. I know how long, and how badly, I wrongly imagined her.  
"I'm just saying that is was easy for me to like Lacey before. It's easy to like someone from a distance. But when she stopped being this amazing unattainable thing or whatever, and started being, like, just a regular girl with a weird relationship with food and frequent crankiness who's kinda bossy - then I had to basically start liking a whole different person."

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Supplemento al dizionario italiano

When we were in Rome, I bought a very useful little book called Supplemento al dizionario italiano by Bruno Munari.  It's a dictionary all about hand signals, and what they mean in Italian.  There's a picture of a hand making the symbol, and then translations in Italian, Englis, French and German.

For example, they do OK just like we do - by making a circle with their thumb and forefinger tips together.  Then there's a short description and info.  Like, "This gesture is a recent import from America, and is not yet very widely used in Italy. The forward movement is sharp and short, then the hand is held motionless."

We went through the entire book with our Italian friends, who taught us some of the finer points of some of the signals.  It was fun, because we were able to communicate with each other on this whole different level!  Sometimes I would challenge M with a long sentence and ask him to say the whole thing in hand signals.  He was really good at it.

Here are some of my favorites... This one means "Rage" you pretend like you're biting your finger.



and this one is like, "Who's with me?"  You put your hand out, and everyone who's "In" puts their finger in your palm.  Cute, right?


Friday, November 30, 2012

The Age of Miracles

I read this FANTASTIC book called The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker - it was so good, and I just want the whole world to read it.  It's about... the end of the world, sort of.  This girl and her family live in California, and pretty soon they and the rest of the planet discover that the earth is spinning more slowly.  By about a minute slower a day, if I remember correctly.  At first everyone freaks out, and they cancel school and work for a week or so.  And some people move out to Utah and start end of the world colonies and whatnot... but what's really interesting is how, after the initial shock, people sort of return to life as usual.  Aside from the planet's actual orbit changing, the life of the teenage character, Julia, continues in the somewhat standard manner.

Partly this is a rather brilliant commentary on how all events are like the end of the world to teenagers, but what really struck me, and maybe this is just me... but what I felt was this larger metaphor of how we react to global catastrophes.  For example, right now global warming is this really serious situation, and I feel pretty strongly that we're all pretty much going to die from it in the relative near future.  But, the average person doesn't really spend much or any of the day fretting or doing much about it, they just carry on with life, even though this major, global, disaster is literally getting worse every minute.  But, also, it's like, what are we going to do?  Just, freak out for like, the next 20 years or whatever?  Just ... constantly freak out?  That doesn't make sense.

Thompson Walker really thought through the implications of the earth spinning slower.  So, after a while, the day gets really, really long - I love how she dealt with the reality of time in her story (You know I'm nutso about Time and Space, y'all.)  Because the Earth spins slower, gravity changes slightly - how does that effect people.  How does it effect crops, and so on?

Most of all I loved the pacing of the book.  It frequently reminded me of Eugenides' Virgin Suicides, which has a beautiful, yearning, slow pace.  Both books are simply exemplary for their treatment of the contemporary suburban American teenager.

We were Californians and thus accustomed to the motions of the earth. We understood that the ground could shift and shudder. We kept batteries in our flashlights and gallons of water in our closet. We accepted that fissures might appear in our sidewalks. Swimming pools sometimes sloshed like bowls of water. We were well practiced at crawling beneath tabletops, and we knew to beware of flying glass. At the start of every school year, we each packed a large ziplock bag full of non-perishables in case The Big One stranded us at school. But we Californians were no more prepared for the particular calamity than those who had built their homes on more stable ground.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax

Liz Jensen has a new book coming out that I'm going to review for Newcity.  I had read The Ninth Life of Louis Drax (2004) before, but I didn't write about it on my blog, so therefore I basically had no memory of it.  In case any of my handful of readers thought this blog was for you, ha ha - well, no.  I have a terrible memory, and don't remember a thing I don't write down.

Louis Drax, much to my surprise, despite having read it before (everyone is like that, right?) is about a precocious young boy in a coma.  It's kind of a mystery, because it's not quite clear how he became comatose.  The book is partly from the perspective of Louis, who has a unique voice, and partly from his doctor.  The whole thing takes place in France.  Jensen is British, but I guess she used to live in France.

Anyway, without giving too much away... there's this kid in a coma, and there's a little mystery, and there's also a little mysticism (or something) - for example, Louis's mother tells the doctor that she thinks her child is an angel.  Louis also narrates, and seems to have a fair amount of insight into what's happening around him.  Louis's voice is interesting to read because he's very aggressive for such a little kid.  Jensen is not at all precious with this story:
Every Wednesday after school, when all the others are doing ateliers or catéchisme or watching TV, I'm visiting Fat Perez who's a mind-reader who isn't any good at mind-reading and to punish him you could post some hamster droppings to him in an envelope, except maybe he'd think they were papaya seeds and plant them in a pot because he's so dumb and he'll wait and wait and wait for them to grow but they never will. And sometimes I count aloud just to drive him mad, un deux trois quatre cinq six sept huit neuf dix onze douze, or in English, one two three four five except then I have to stop because I don't know what comes after five. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Clan of the Cave Bear

Somehow I managed NOT to read Clan of the Cave Bear between the ages of 15-23, like every other girl in America, but it's always been on my kitschy-to-read list because I've long heard that it's "good" and also that there are "bonkers sex scenes."

Then we went to France a few years ago and I got really interested in caves and cavepeople and cave drawings, so, I finally picked up a copy at my local thrift store (trust me, there's always a copy at your local thrift store).



So, it's about this girl, who's a Cro-Magnon, I guess, named Ayla, whose family gets killed in an earthquake.  She nearly dies, but is saved by this Neanderthal lady named Iza.  Iza raises her as her daughter, but the whole thing's fraught with a lot of suspicion and anxiety because the girl is from "the Others".  Their culture is extremely patriarchal and all the women have to literally bow and avert their eyes until the men allow them to talk.  I just cannot bear to read shit like that, unless there's a pretty quick subversion and triumph by the lady folks. Unfortunately for poor Ayla, it's just one damn tribulation after another, mostly because of the men in the tribe.  Eventually the tribe elder announces that she is "dead" (temporarily) because she illegally learned how to hunt, and even though she saved someone's life, she has to go to the "spirit world" for a month.  It's actually pretty easy for her to survive the spirit world, which, it turns out, is just the regular world, because she knows how to hunt and she's pretty smart, having a larger frontal lobe and whatnot.  Anyway, she survives that and returns to the clan and then, she starts getting raped by this rotten caveman all the time.  Eventually she gets pregnant and has a baby, but everyone thinks there's something wrong with the baby because it has a skinny neck and can't hold it's head up.  So, she runs off with the baby so they won't kill it, but when she comes back, they're like, Now you have to be "dead" again.

And all this happens when she's, like, EIGHT.

There were a couple parts I liked, like, how Jean Auel describes Ayla as tall, blonde and lithe but all the Neanderthals think she's really ugly.  Also, I liked how she described Ayla setting up her own cave and surviving all by herself.  I like to think I could do that, even though I would most surely die of hypothermia almost immediately.  PS, I saw these great photographs by Megan Cump that reminded me of the book.

But, the gross patriarchal overtones, the child-rape and complete absence of cave paintings means I'm done with those books FOREVER!  Although, will someone please tell me what happens in the rest of the series?  Just for fun?

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Hologram for the King

As you may know, I think Dave Eggers is an absolute genius, and I love everything he writes and does - especially the 826 organizations around the country.  By the way, my old friend Amanda is an Executive Director at 826 Michigan and recently spoke at TED Detroit. (So! Cool!)

So, I really don't know why, but his latest book seemed to really fly under the radar this year.  But, let me assure you that it is amazing in every way, and really worth anyone's time to read.  I'm even think my dad, who, as far as I know, hasn't read a full book since... I don't know when, would really love this book.

It's called a Hologram for the King - and, first, I would like to wax nostalgic about the cover art.  For one thing, I've noticed that Eggers usually doesn't have a book jacket, and, I have to think that he's like me and thinks, book jackets are stupid, why does my book need a jacket, it's just extra paper that gets in the way and requires production... so, no book jacket, but the hardback has been kind of pressed to resemble and old, fancy, embossed leather book.  It even has a sort of surprise detail in the cover, but I'll leave that for you to figure out.  Just gorgeous, and it's going to put all the other books on my shelves to shame.

It's about this man, Alan Clay, who's in Saudia Arabia to present a technology to the King in order, he hopes, to secure the IT contract for this new city that's being built in the desert.  Clay is almost broke, having experienced a lot of success but now stuck in the downward spiral of the economy.  Clay and his colleagues soon realize that the king's schedule changes constantly, and the few days they thought they would be overseas stretch to several weeks.  Meanwhile, in a jet-lagged fog, compounded by some illegal hootch given to him by an ex-pat, he awkwardly tries to negotiate this new culture and turn his life around.

Cleverly included in this funny, slightly surreal story about a the hubris involved in building a city in a desert (while firmly remembering that that very hubris is what lead to unprecedented growth in America) are reflections on American industry, outsourcing, a cautionary cautionary tale about putting our eggs in the basket that is the middle east, and representations of masculinity.  
He wanted to believe that this kind of thing, a city rising from dust, could happen. The architectural renderings he'd seen were magnificent. Gleaming towers, tree-lined public spaces and promenades, a series of canals allowing commuters to get almost anywhere by boat. The city of futuristic and romantic, but also practical. It could be made with extant technology and a lot of money, but money Abdullah certainly had. Why hadn't he just put the money up himself, without Emaar, was a mystery. The man had enough money to raise the city overnight - so why didn't he? Sometimes a king had to be a king.
Once again, Eggers has really captured the spirit of our times and I just wish this book were getting more press!  I feel like it's not getting the praise it deserves.

Here are my glowing reviews of What is the What and Zeitoun.  I must have read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius pre-Bookish because I don't have an entry for it, but I love that book too.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Wolf Hall

This Hilary Mantel has been getting a lot of good press for her Bringing Up the Bodies, so I wanted to read the first book in the series: Wolf Hall.  It's the first of a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, who was kind of like Henry VIII's right-hand man.  This book is about Henry's divorce from his first wife and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn.

To tell the truth, I didn't know a lot about Thomas Cromwell, he is portrayed as a thuggish, desperate child and a enterprising businessman - he comes off as thoughtful and caring, at least for his own people.  His dialogue is very funny - he and other members of the court are portrayed as quite witty.  Henry VIII manages to maintain a image that sort of belies the ever rising death toll around him - instead of coming off as a monster, like I expected, he's jovial and friendly.

I remember learning (in school!) that Anne Boleyn had 6 fingers on one hand, but apparently that's pretty much debunked as a myth.  One of the things I really liked about this book is that it sent me straight to wikipedia over and over again to research the course of events, to find out if various parts of the book were historically accurate.   I'm a little torn because well... historical spoiler alert: Cromwell is executed at the end of his life, so it's kind of weird to read a trilogy where you know straight up what's going to happen in the end.  In a few interviews, Mantel has been quite clear about how she intends to end the books, even.  Also, I don't like reading/watching/thinking about the death penalty, it just really upsets me.  So... I don't know if I'm going to carry on.

Probably I will...

Mantel is a great writer.  She is able to walk that fine line of elegant prose without falling into the trap of cheesy, overwrought language (so typical in a lot of historical fiction).  Another thing I loved about Wolf Hall was the reference to Cromwell's memory technique, based on the Memory Palace idea - my obsession of 2011!  Here she write about Henry going to visit the king of France:


He is taking his own cooks and his own bed, his ministers whom Europe calls his concubine. He is taking the possible claimants to the throne, including the Yorkist Lord Montague, and the Lancastrian Nevilles, to show how tame they are and how secure are the Tudors. He is taking his gold plate, his linen, his pastry chefs and poultry-pickers and poison-taster, and he is even taking his own wine: which you might think is superfluous, but what do you know?
Snap! That last bit of the paragraph slays me!  She does something like that a few times in the book which brings in a very modern sensibility that I love so much!

The title is also really clever - Wolf Hall is where Jane Seymour (#3) grew up - there was some scandal there and it had this reputation as a debauched sort of place (I'm not sure if that's historically accurate or not...).  Anyway, I don't believe any of the book actually takes place in Wolf Hall, but the title continuously reminds you that, despite the sort of glamour and apparent civility of the court of the King of England, the events are dark and frankly, barbaric.

Monday, November 05, 2012

After Henry

We read After Henry for book club - I've never read Joan Didion before and it was a fairly nice introduction to her work.  She writes beautifully, and that book of essays (written after her editor, Henry, died) focus mainly on Reagan politics, and the politics and cultures of place: New York, California, and Hawaii.  I really liked everything she wrote about California - she really has a knack for capturing the zeitgeist of place.

The only downside to After Henry is that it's LITERALLY like reading a 30-year old New Yorker.  Like, really good, but a little out of my frame of reference.  I didn't start paying attention to politics until the 2nd Clinton administration.

On earthquakes in southern Cal, she writes:
At odd moments during the next few days people would suddenly clutch at tables, or walls.  "Is it going," they would say, or "I think it's moving" They almost always said "it", and what they meant by "it" was not just the ground but the world as they knew it.  I have lived all my life with the promise of the Big One, but when it starts going now even I get the jitters.
I really want to read one of her novels, preferably about California, but not sure where to start - any suggestions?

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Speak

I read this fantastic book called Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson!  I'd been reading about how influential it was on a handful of blogs I read, including Paperback Treasures, a YA book blog that I read, where the 17 year-old author put it #1 on her list of Books that Made Me Think and then immediately said it was not creative because it was such an obvious choice.  Because everyone's already read it.  Except me.  

Also it's come under attack by people who would like to censor it.  I like going out of my way to read banned books just because some jerk out there said not to.

It starts with Melinda going to school for the first day of the term - she feels like an outcast, and all of her friends have turned on her.  Something happened over the summer, but it's not quite clear at the beginning.  This isn't sugar-coated Sweet Valley High, Melinda's been through some trauma, and she's suffering.  For example, on cheerleaders:
  In one universe, they are georgeous, straight-teethed, long-legged, wrapped in designer fashions, and given sports cars on their sixteenth birthdays.  Teachers smile at them and grade them on the curve. They know the first names of the staff. They are the Pride of the Trojans. Oops - I mean Pride of the Blue Devils.
  In Universe #2, they throw parties wild enough to attract college students. They worship the stink of Eau de Jocque. They rent beach houses in Cancún during Spring Break and get group-rate abortions before the prom.
Eventually the reader learns that Melinda was raped by a classmate at a party over the summer, and was  too terrified to say anything to anyone.  Her parents are absorbed with their own issues and most of her teachers treat students as aggressors or delinquents.  When Melinda's grades start to sink, and she speaks less and less, she easily starts to disappear in the cracks of the school.  Still terrorized by the student who raped her (she calls him "IT" because she can't even think his name), Melinda is this brilliant, witty young woman that's just trying to keep her head down - so it's really amazing when she starts to turn the corner and become more assertive.  She doesn't tell anyone what happened, but she wants to stop it from happening again, to another girl.

The final pages of Speak are really amazing - I nearly shouted and certainly did a fair amount of crying - it was inspiring and empowering to read - a great book for women of any age, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Speed of Dark

The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon, is written from the perspective of an autistic man named Lou.  It takes place in the not-too-distant future, where autism has largely been "cured", and he and some other highly-functioning autistic folks work in an office that has been engineered to meet their specific needs and take advantage of their special skills.  Lou is a thoughtful,  accomplished person with a lot of friends and activities, but when the company pressures them to also under-go an autism "cure" they all grabble with the ethics and science of the proposal.  What Lou considers most of all is whether he will be the same person after the experiment as he is before.  So, the book has a Flowers for Algernon quality that I find rather appealing (I've always liked that story).  I should admit that some of the book dragged for me a bit - it felt a bit long at 340 pages (hardcover).  But, the language was beautiful.
I glance around my apartment and think of my own reactions, my need for regularity, my fascination with repeating phenomena, with series and patterns. Everyone needs some regularity; everyone enjoys series and patterns to some degree. I have known that for years, but now I understand it better.   We autistics are at one end of an arc of human behavior and preference, but we are connected. 
I'm going to lay down some spoilers here... don't read if you don't want to know what happens.


....


I'm serious...


...


OK, so, Lou decides to have the operation, way, way near the end of the book - and it's very powerful - for a while he's in a haze, and then he has to relearn everything - walking, talking, etc.  And, it's fairly heart-wrenching, because one becomes quite attached to Lou, and then it's like, Oh great, everything's gone to shit!  But, he relearns very quickly and then one of his friends, who happens to be non-autistic, comes to visit him, but you can tell from his reaction that Lou is not at all the person he was before.  Structurally, I love how Moon left all of that for literally the last 20 or so pages. Ultimately she  illustrates how conditions like autism create merely an aspect of the whole person, and that aspect is certainly not portrayed as a disability - at least anymore than most people are effected by distractions and interruptions (which is why I put the word "cured" above in quotations).  This book has a lot in common with the excellent The Colony, which I read recently - and would recommend both to anyone interested in narratives about the experience of people with disabilities.  Also, if you're interested in more  on the subject, there's a great writer over at Tiger Beatdown - s.e. smith.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

NW

My review for Sadie Smith's new book - NW - is in the latest copy Newcity and available online.  I really liked it, although, I hate to tell you, not as much as White Teeth or On Beauty.  One thing I didn't mention in my review is that there is a repeated image of the fox in the city, which, without putting too fine a point on it, serves as kind of a reminder of the "wild" or "nature" finding and forcing its way into the environs of the city.  
I'm into foxes myself this year because there's a family of foxes on the campus where I work, and every once in a while, if you're lucky, you'll see one taking a nap or, you know, killing a rabbit.  I've never seen a fox in my life before, then, suddenly, it's like Wild Kingdom out there.  They're beautiful little animals and I'm mildly obsessed.  

Here's one of Smith's fox references.  In this bit, Leah's mother has just given her a hard time about not having kids and she's thinking about how all her friends are having children:

The problem seems to be two different conceptions of time. She knows the pull of her animal nature should, by now, be making the decisions. Perhaps she's been a city fox too long. Every new arrival - the announcements seem to come now every day - feels like a terrible betrayal. Why won't everybody stay still? She has forced a stillness in herself, but it has not stopped the world from continuing on.  [...] Leave all this! Let's be outlaws! Sleeping in hedgerows. Following the railway line til it reaches the sea. Waking up with that long black hair in her eyes, in her mouth. Phoning home from fantasy boxes that still take the old 2 pees. We're fine, don't worry. I want to stay still and to keep moving. I want this life and another. Don't look for me!


Sunday, September 09, 2012

I never saw a moor, I never saw the sea

 Have you seen the new photo of Emily Dickinson?  There was only one known photo of her, at 16...


But this one shows her a bit older (left) with her friend Kate Turner (in mourning).


Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal

My review of the always amazing Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? on Newcity Lit!


Monday, September 03, 2012

The Fallback Plan

Gack.  So, I've been reading a lot more books on my iPad Kindle app, and mostly I like it, but what really drives me balls is the notes and comments issue.  And also, formatting.  (And also, random text that seems to pop up.  And font irregularities. And, some other stuff too.)  I borrowed The Fallback Plan, by Leigh Stein, from the library, which is a major pain in the ass.  I understand all the weird issues that libraries are trying to iron out with publishers and whatnot, but each time I've borrowed an ebook from the library it's been such a massive P.i.t.A. that it's almost not worth it.  Firstly, for no obvious reason, you inevitably have to wait 2 months for the book to be "available".   I apply quotations merely to illustrate the obvious point that the normal library policies are nothing more than constructs when applied to ebooks, as everyone knows - whatever, I'll play that little game, but I'll also think it's stupid while I'm playing it.  Secondly, none of your notes are saved.  Why? Those are MY notes.  I received an annoying note that if I BUY the book, my notes will be returned?  BUY IT?  After I went to all the damn trouble in the first place of BORROWING it?  No.

Anyway, I highlighted a bunch of stuff and put in some notes, but now that my loan period is over the book has disappeared off my reader and all my notes are gone.  I didn't quite realize that would happen, or else I would have kept my notes elsewhere.  *frowny face*  I'm just annoyed because I don't have my NOTES!  Point of this long story: I'm not done with real books yet.

The Fallback Plan reminded me a lot of Treasure Island!!!, a hilarious book by Sara Levine about a young, well-educated, mostly unemployed woman.  Esther is a directionless recent Northwestern graduate, which was quite amusing to me for various reasons.  It's funny like this:
   "Dad, can I borrow the car tonight?"   "If you put on some pants," he said.   I looked at my legs. I was only wearing the t-shirt I had worn to be the night before. On the front, it had a picture of a gray wolf, standing on a cliff, howling at a full moon. The moon was surrounded by silvery clouds coming out of a ghostlike woman's mouth. This was my so-ugly-it's-awesome shift, but my parents didn't appreciate that, even after I explained it to them.
Eventually Esther gets a baby-sitting gig for a little girl who's parents are experiencing some emotional trauma and it continues to be pretty amusing despite the fact that written dialogue of children is the Most Boring Thing In The World. Ever.  And, eventually, the book becomes slightly more than just about an aimless midwestern college graduate navigating a horrible economy, however... does this all remind you of anything?  It's a lot like Lorrie Moore's absolutely brilliant 2009 A Gate At the Stairs, which is also partly about a directionless recent college grad who's babysitting for an emotionally traumatized family. Where Moore greatly exceeds Levine is in how her story explodes into this meta-narrative about family, race, midwestern-ism and eventually nothing less than Time & Space.  God help me if I'm not a sucker for stories that don't examine our very existence.  

Which is not to say that Stein's book isn't worth your time - I think it is - it's so rare to find a book that actually makes you laugh out loud; I did, several times.  Also, she's only frigging 27 years old, so it's not really fair to compare her to the highly accomplished Lorrie Moore (but, seriously, if you haven't read A Gate at the Stairs, do.)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

This Will Be Difficult to Explain

My review of This Will Be Difficult to Explain on Newcity Lit.  Short stories by Johanna Skibsrud.


I hate that cover - reminds me too much of this...


Monday, August 27, 2012

Thursday, August 23, 2012

We Only Know So Much

I read We Only Know So Much for Newcity magazine and interviewed the author, Elizabeth Crane.  Wow, interviewing her was the first time I've ever really enjoyed interviewing anyone - she was very easy-going and had great answers to my questions.

I thought the book was really fantastic - it's about a multi-generation family living in one house - Two parents, their children, and a grandparent and a great-grandparent.  That's so unusual in a contemporary household, and I really loved that aspect of the book - these very different characters bound by familial bonds  - people that wouldn't love or care for each other aside from the fact that they do - because they're family.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me

Here's my review of Harvey Pekar's Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me on Newcity Lit!  Fantastic graphic novel that's both informative and personal.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Broken Harbor

Here's my review of Broken Harbor on Newcity Lit - It's a great book, I really recommend it for mystery fans.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Valley of the Dolls

Valley of the Dolls was a recent book club selection for us.

It was published in 1966 by Jacqueline Susann and revolves around three women characters, starting in 1945.  At first I really liked it because it had this real Mad Men quality, but it's a really bizarre, kind of anti-feminist book that's rather disconcerting.  For example, Anne, who I see as the main character, at the beginning has just left Lawrenceville, Massachusetts, where she foreswears the dreary Lawrenceville fate that awaits her - Marriage and a life of old-fashioned New England Unhappiness.  So, she moves to New York city where she wants nothing more than to live in Manhattan, and, oddly, get married and do nothing but fulfill the dreams of the man she loves.  Her friend Neely is a really talented singer and actress, who also would love nothing more than to land a (rich) husband and quit working.  Worse, perhaps, is Jennifer, a beautiful woman and successful actress, who nevertheless openly admits to what she perceives as her own extreme lack of talent, and desires nothing more than to (... you guessed it) before the rest of the world realizes how extremely untalented she really is.

Another rather awful thing about reading Valley of the Dolls is that it's really homophobic, and there are frequent references to "fags" and "faggots" and how gay men are "not really men at all".  It's a pretty sad reminder of how it was more socially acceptable to straight up hate on gays - but the weirdest thing of all is that apparently Susann herself was bisexual.  Self-hatred makes me so sad.  

Apparently (at least according to a rather eye-opening Wikipedia entry on the book, it's also a roman à clef, which means that the characters are based on actual people.  So, Neely is Judy Garland, Jennifer is Carole Landis (which whom Suzann reportedly had a relationship) and this other awful woman, Helen Lawson, is Ethel Merman.  I'm not sure who the enabling doormat Anne is...

Oh! And the pills! The pills!  "Dolls" it turns out, is slang for barbiturates.  I'm not sure if that was common slang or Suzann just made it up for this book.  So, (tiny spoiler) all the women end up addicted to various "dolls" - mostly Seconal (for which there is a fascinating wikipedia page).

The movie is BEYOND stupid, and, by some accounts, one of the worst movies ever made.  We were all sort of amazed by how much they cut out.  I can't imagine that if you watched the movie without reading the book that you would have ANY idea what was going on.  At least in the book you understand why these women are friends.  Also, it ends on a slightly up-beat note, where the book does not.   But, we watched the movie in my backyard, projected on a screen while we swigged sparkling wine and chucked handfuls of Hot Tamales into our mouths whilst howling with laughter, so it really couldn't have been more fun.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Fledgling

When we were in Seattle last year, I kept seeing Octavia Bulter books everywhere - I'd never heard of her before but it was pretty clear she was the patron saint writer in Seattle.  I asked for a recommendation and a bookseller told me: Fledgling.  My To-Read pile is pretty big so I only got around to reading it a year later - well worth the wait! I definitely intend to read more by this great Seattle writer.

I don't like reading back covers of novels, so I didn't quite realize what this was about.  One time I recommended to my book club that we read Fledgling and my friend said, "Isn't that about a vampire?" with more than a little distain.  I said, "Oh, no, I don't think so..." but walked over to my book shelf and briefly peeked at the back cover, enough to see "...Shori is a fifty-three-year-old vampire with a ravenous hunger for blood..." Whaaaaaaaa?

Anyway, it is indeed about this young woman, Shori, who, it turns out, is a vampire.  At the beginning of the book, she has amnesia and doesn't realize what she is - she has to teach herself or try to learn from others her unique culture.  Shori quickly starts a relationship with this handsome guy, Wright, whose blood she also drinks.  She has very dark skin and comes from a line of scientific vampires.
Some of us have tried for centuries to find ways to be less vulnerable during the day. Shori is our latest and most successful effort in that direction. She's also, through genetic engineering, part human. We were experimenting with genetic engineering well before humanity learned to d o it - before they even learned that it was possible.
What's pretty weird is that this book has actually quite a lot in common with Twilight.  Both were published in 2005, and both have super-smart, attractive vampires that live for a long time and have irresistible, insatiable relationships with plain-old humans. Most of the vampires a "good" - they don't kill their blood sources but rather have a symbiotic relationship. Both take place in the Pacific Northwest, and, get this... both have a lot of SITTING ON LAPS!  Is that a thing?

However, where Meyer's Twilight is insipid (if not deliciously addictive) nonsense, Fledgling is a vehicle for larger themes surrounding race and femininity, sexuality and Feminism.  For example, Shori (unlike Bella) is immensely powerful - she's brilliant, she's strong, and she's sexually assertive.  Because the vampires need a lot of blood, they need multiple human partners, usually both men and women.  All the vampires have to maintain the peace in their families.  Navigating the inevitable jealousies of a poly-amorous household is seen as an admirable feat of sensitivity and intellect, one at which Shori excels.  Her black skin, small size, relative youth and gender put her at a disadvantage to the other vampires, who fear and criticize almost all those attributes - it's up to her to convince the community to help protect her and her human consorts, as well as to reteach her the things she needs to know to survive.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The Colony

I read about The Colony on a blog I read - The Rejectionist.  Actually, I didn't so much read about it as merely see that The Rejectionist had read it, so that was good enough for me.  I enjoy reading a book that I know basically nothing about.  I think my sister and I might be the only people in the entire universe who would rather die than read the back cover of a book.

Anyway (if you don't mind finding out a little bit about this book), The Colony, by Jillian Weise, takes place in the not-so-distant future (specifically 2015), and the main character, Anne Hatley, along with some other folks, have just moved to The Colony, a science campus where it seems like they'll probably be experimented on.  Anne has a "rare genetic mutation" and other new arrivals talk about how they have a "fat gene" or a "suicide gene".  One guy's bipolar.  Another has Alzheimer's.  Eventually (I'm not ruining it) and wonderfully slowly, it's revealed that the scientists are out to use these people's genes to cure them and others that have similar genetic afflictions.

But, what's really great about this book is Anne really challenges the idea that she needs "curing" or that she even has an "affliction."  (One of her legs never fully developed - she has a computerized leg and walks with that.) She is, after all, a perfectly capable person that's well educated, has a decent job, is attractive and relatively satisfied with her life (at least, as much as your average 25 year old).  She only begins to entertain the concept of allowing the scientists to fiddle with her genes when she fully realizes how narrowly other people view some disabilities with disgust and even hatred.
It wasn't true that love conquers all. Love doesn't. In the morning, one person has a condition and the other doesn't. No one should feel like a condition, as if their entire life, how people see them, revolves around a microscopic chromosome. It's not air. And don't give me the bullshit about finding someone who looks beyond that. What am I supposed to do? Be so happy, so appreciative when I find someone who looks beyond me? I don't want anyone to have to look beyond me. Where would they be looking?
A few years ago Weise wrote an article about getting her first "cyborg" leg.  Before I read this book and that article, I think it was less easy for me to understand why a person wouldn't want to have the more "normal" body.  So, I couldn't recommend this book more - not only is it beautifully written, but it's gotten a really interesting story and it made me challenge my own preconceptions and helped me change them.

By the way, there's an amazing Notes section at the end of the book that lists references for some of the scientific background and influences that is really eye-opening.  Oh, Weise is a poet, too.  Here's one of her pieces.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Year of the Gadfly

I reviewed this book for Newcity: The Year of the Gadfly, by Jennifer Miller. Here's my review. I also painted a scene from it!  Here's the inspiration text:
  Hazel opened the door wearing a long brown sweater, a thick green scarf, and at least a dozen jangling bracelets. She ushered them into to a large room with three tapestry-covered couches and skylights filtering snowy light. The room contained many large paintings, most displaying women in various states of undress. The canvas of the fireplace shoed a woman who resembled Hazel, minus the freckles. Her hair curled like vines across her naked breasts.

I thought I had completely ruined this one several times.  My darling husband, M, kept saying in a soothing voice, "There are no mistakes..." channelling Bob Ross. And later, Walter: "Nothing is fucked, Dude."  Hair, man.  It turns out hair is really hard.  I'm going to try to avoid it in the future.  There were a few "happy accidents" though.  In the end, I kind of like how her hair came out, although I had many small temper tantrums along the way.  I'm pretty happy with the neck, nose, and eyebrows, too.  The background is not great, obs.  

Saturday, July 07, 2012

The Orange Fish

Here's another watercolor from my not-quite-famous-yet (for some reason?) series based on things I'm reading.  This one's from a book of short stories by Carol Shields called The Orange Fish. The title is from the name of the first story, which is about a couple whose lives have gotten kind of stale, so they decide to buy some art work.  They buy a print of a goldfish in a bowl, and... well, their lives start to change.  It's a pretty incredible story.  I don't think my painting will ruin anything for you.

Here's the accompanying text:  Lois-Ann and I took in the flare of dyed hair, curiously angled and distinctively punk in style.  You can imagine our surprise: here of all places to find a spiked bracelet, black nails, cheeks outlined in blue paint, and a forehead tattooed with the world's most familiar expletive. 

I'm sort of proud of this painting, I mean, yes, overall it has some problems but some parts did what I wanted them to do.  I have another painting for you later in the week!

Friday, July 06, 2012

A Nobel Radiance

A chatty bookseller in Seattle talked me (easily) into buying A Nobel Radiance by Donna Leon.  I love a good mystery.  I guess this one is from a series about Guido Brunetti.  He's a "commissario" in Venice.  In A Nobel Radiance, Brunetti is trying to solve the mystery of a kidnapping that occurred a few years ago, after a body is found.  Brunetti is married to a woman who comes from an old, wealthy Venetian family - Leon has a nice balance between her main character's professional and personal life.

I must say, the ending kind of took me by surprise - I did not see it coming (always kind of a fun experience).  The only odd thing about the book was it really could have taken place anywhere. Venice was not really featured at all, which I thought was strange.  Why set a novel in an amazing city like Venice and then not play it up?  Leon seems like a very understated writer, though.  I think she might like putting her action in the wings.  Most of the action is extremely even tempered.

One thing I did love was how much Italian she slid in, without translations, but easily understood.  Except for this sentence: "Qualche garbuglio si troverà." Ah, turns out it's from Figaro... "I'll find some way to mess it up." It was also written in 1998, with a healthy dose of internet/computer skepticism. "Before Signorina Elettra, newly appalled at his ignorance, could begin to explain to him just what a modem was and how it worked, Brunetti turned and left her office. Neither viewed his precipitate departure as a lost opportunity for the advancement of human understanding."

I'd be interested in reading more of her work - if anyone is familiar with her books, please let me know.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Weird Sisters

I read about half of The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown.  I really love the concept - three literary sisters (named Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia) whose parents were Shakespearean scholars.  The three sisters return to the little college town where their parents (or maybe just their dad? I can't remember) live, slipping back into their roles.  What really drove me nuts about the book, and why I ultimately didn't finish it, was that it felt SO PREDICTABLE.  It was a great idea, and I think Brown's a good writer - I loved the historical and literate references, but the inevitable slog toward the sisters bonding together to help each other overcome some conflict, pairing off with the various handsome, rugged men and their pick up trucks in town was too boring.

The book has a lot to do with birth order, which I suspect my sister would like.  She told me this is one of her friends fave books of the year, so, you know.  One person's trash.
Rose is the only one who can get us out the door on time when we have theater tickets or are trying to get to church services.  When our mother left pans of carrots boiling away to charred messes on the stove, Rose made us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cutting them neatly in sailboats for Cordy. When she got her driver's license, she drove Bean to the nearest mall (which isn't really near at all) almost every weekend night, and didn't even tell on her the time she met those boys with the Trans Am and came home with vodka on her breathe and vomit down the front of her blouse.... as much as she hates us for taking away her throne, she has never ever pushed us off of it.  And she would be none of those things if she weren't the firstborn.
If I'm wrong about the end, by all means, correct me!  For some reason, I find it quite difficult to "cheat" and skip to the end to see what actually happened.

Notice:  I have a new painting for my series!  I'll post soon.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

2nd in a series

I continue my (extremely slow) series of drawings created from books I'm reading.  Here's the first one I did, from Super Sad True Love Story.   This one I started a long time ago - inspired by Crossed, by Ally Condie.  The first watercolor was so bad, I wanted to redo it.  Here's the first one:
Terrible, right?
and here's the second one.   It still didn't come out exactly like I wanted, but I kind of like it.  

 Since I have like, absolutely no idea what I'm doing, I consider this all "win."  I don't think it would ruin the book to view this image, but, if you've read it, maybe you'll remember this part?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

What was that book?

Found a great website where people post about books whose titles they've forgotten and other people chime in with the answers: What was that book?  Of course, I immediately posted the description of a book of short stories I've been searching for for YEARS.  I hope someone knows what it is called!


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On 50 Shades of Gray and Fan Fiction

I've been quite amused by the popularity of 50 Shades of Gray and the conversations around it recently.   Erotic fiction is certainly not new, but the level of discourse around it has changed recently, in that people are so willing to admit they're reading British author EL James Fifty Shades trilogy.  Not surprisingly, it's a top-selling ebook, for those who don't like to bare their book covers.

I haven't actually read the book, except for some excerpts I read online - but, I never let a little thing like actual experience get in the way of sharing my thoughts.  What's surprising is how few people seem to know that Fifty Shades is fanfiction of the Twilight series, and, not only that, but I've discovered quite a few friends don't know what fanfic is, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to explain.  Fanfic is a type of story written in the style or with a continuation of characters or stories from a piece of literature.  It varies wildly in quality - some is quite excellent, like Wide Sargasso Sea or March, and some is really awful, like 90% of the stuff you'll find on fanfiction.net.  Harry Potter and Twilight are the most popular kinds of fan fiction; it's not all erotic, there are many represented genres.  (BTW, if you're just reading about this for the first time, and you're anything like me, you'll spend the next straight 24 hours mindlessly reading one story after another until you never want to ready anything ever again.)

You can sort stories on fanfiction.net by type of story, "rating", language, number of words, characters, complete or in-progress and inspiration via movie or book.  So, a short, finished, mature, sexy story about Bella and Esme would have a search the one below...
and three results would appear, one with this description: "Bella, still a virgin at 20 & perpetually horny and snarky, has a heart too big to worry about herself. Turns out being forced to work on Valentine's Day because she's single may not be such a bad thing. Especially when her client is Esme Platt."  


A few years ago, a similar search for Bella and Edward resulted in a series called "Master of the Universe" by SnowQueen IceDragon, which is now Fifty Shades of Grey.  They've since removed "Master" from fanfiction.net, but I did find an excerpt.  EL James's publishers claim that "Master" and Fifty Shades are separate works of fiction, but some enterprising sleuths discovered the books are 89% identical.  So, apparently the guy character, based on Edward, is rich and possessive and secretive (although not a vampire), and the girl is a horny clumsy virgin (sound familiar?).  I hear there's also a Jacob character, and possibly an Alice?  Anywho, as far as I know, Stephanie Meyer hasn't made any accusations of infringement, and even if she did, who knows what would happen?    I'm no copyright expert, but I wonder what the legal implications are or will be, assuming more and more publishers go trolling the fanfic databases for the next best-seller.  By the way, it's not unusual to see authors write "I do not own these characters" at the beginning of their stories, as if absolving themselves of any dubious copyright infraction they may have committed.  


The copyright thing is strange ... what if I just wrote an erotic novel about a daring orphaned boy and his brave red-headed girlfriend, who happened to be the sister of his best friend?  (Wait, what IF I DID???)  I mean, can we just do that?  

Check these out:
3 Grannies critique
Gilbert Gorrfreid reads
50 Shades of Grey Pinterest board
Increase in rope sales?
Ellen reads

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Great House

I finally finished Great House by Nicole Krauss - I had started it some time ago and then got distracted by other things on my nightstand.  It's a lovely book, and Krauss writes beautifully - her History of Love is so poetic and beautiful... but... I have to say I found some parts of Great House really boring, and, I must admit I flipped past a few pages.  She'll go on for whole paragraphs about someone raising a glass of tea to their lips, not drinking, and putting the cup down again.

The book tracks, non-linearly, a desk and it's various owners.  The first character is a writer who talks about how she came to own the desk.  I like the way she tells this story because, as a reader, you kind of get ost int he story but every once in a while she slips in that "Your Honor" and reminds you that there's a bit of a mystery about to whom and why she might be talking.  Another story is told from the perspective of a hate-fueled old man whose wife has died and he has a really rotten relationship with one of his sons.  My favorite story is told by a young woman who is dating a guy - she loves him and his sister, but they have this weird, mysterious relationship with their father, who searches out furniture for Jewish families.  He searches for these tangible articles that were stolen by the Nazis.  "Unlike people, he used to say, the inanimate doesn't simply disappear."
The Gestapo confiscated the most valuable items in the apartment, which were many, since Weisz's family on this mother's side had been wealthy. These were loaded - along with mountains of jewelry, diamonds, money, watches, paintings, rugs, silverware, china, furniture, linens, porcelains, and even cameras and stamp collections - onto the forty-two car "Gold Train" the SS used to evacuate Jewish possessions as the Soviet troops  advanced toward Hungary.  In the years after the War, when Weisz returned to Budapest, the first thing he did was knock on these neighbors' doors and, as the color washed out of the faces, entered their apartments with a small gang of hired thugs who seized the stolen furniture, carrying it out on their backs.
So, ultimately, while I don't think it was nearly as captivating as History of Love, it was certainly well-written, and I curiously await Krauss's next work.