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


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.