Monday, December 26, 2011

Healing story no. 1 billion and seven

Book: Left Neglected

Author: Lisa Genova

Published: 2011(Gallery Books)

Pages: 322

There’s a certain kind of matte-finished book jacket painted with still life that’s supposed to be vaguely symbolic of the story within but mostly reminds you of when your mother dragged you to a bunch of interior design stores because she was redecorating her living room and wanted your input. It’s generic trying to disguise itself as profound. In my experiences, these book jackets do their advertising jobs well; the stories tend toward premises that look cool but are slathered with all the intellectual complexity and emotional subtly of a Hallmark Channel movie.

That is how a book about a workaholic recovering from a rare brain disorder becomes boring.

Left neglect is where a person ignores the left side of their world because a part of their right brain is damaged. Fascinating, right? And rare, and rich with weird physical and psychological challenges, right? Not according to this account of an overworked mom who prattles on about her busy by reciting from a big business trope list without bothering to add her personal details. When she gets into a car accident that literally slows her down to about a quarter of her normal speed, the author lapses into healing family clichés about staying slowed down for good.

I just…y’all, these books wear me out. They make me feel guilty for wanting a sick person to be much more interesting, then they make me question my guilt issues because I’m feeling guilty about a fictional character, then they make me reassert my true hatred for said character because everything works out in the end because she willed it to be so through family rifts and financial crises that in any other universe would require more than her wanting to fully heal. It’s not that this isn’t realistic (although it isn’t). It’s that the dramatic obstacles melt like cotton candy, without any effort, and leave just as saccharine an aftertaste. I HATE cotton candy.

Points for the subtle title pun, though. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

German angst on art and beauty

Book: Death in Venice and Other Stories

Author: Thomas Mann

Published: 1988 (Bantam, this collection); 1897-1912 (original story publication dates)

Pages: 263

Hoo, boy, does Thomas Mann ever have conflicting issues with his chosen profession.

He's this great chatty German with a keen sense of existential dread and how beauty (and lust disguised as high-minded appreciation of it) can wreck an artist especially easily. His character-to-character dialogue has that real-life rhythmic panic of "Oh fuck how much of what I actually feel should I say?", which is not something I expect to come across so clearly from a pre-modern writer. Snaps for him.

Or maybe his 1988 translator. That's a problem I have with translation; how much of the text is lost when it jumps languages? Witness Kafka's "bug" vs. "cockroach" vs. "vermin" opening. Maybe I should just learn German? 

But then I'd be the shitty translator and have no one to complain about but myself, and as Mann proves in his giant blocks of monologue on the nature of Art and the Writer's Role in it all, that is some boring-ass prose. It stops his narratives dead until the hunchback re-meets the lady who makes him feel the pang of being an outcast, or until the shopkeeper yells at the religious dude to stop waving that knife around because that won't make him take the obscene picture out of his shop window, or until the tubercular wife of a count stops playing the piano for a smitten writer. 

See? He's got some good stuff. You just have to get past his angst. I bet he was FUN when his writing was going badly.      

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Book: The Book of Human Insects

Author/artist: Osamu Tezuka

Published: 2011 (Vertical; this edition), 1970-1971 (Play Comic; original serial run)

Pages: 364

Trying to get a handle on what’s so good about a revolutionary is difficult when said revolutionary ushered in the movement that became the norm over the next forty years. Style taken for granted and even expected now blew people’s hair off when it first came out. But how does a style stay fresh through its process of mainstreaming?

Wait, I’m supposed to have an answer for that. Um. Sex and violence and blackmailing that all revolves around a pretty young girl who manipulates her way through most of the artistic talent spectrum while recharging at her childhood home next to a wax figure of her dead mother will always cause compulsive page-turning. Especially if there’s an insect metamorphosis structural metaphor that’s obvious but never explicated mentioned (I love you a little for that, Mr. Tezuka). Especially especially if the characters are all drawn so uniquely and the sound effects are either onomonopias or stage directions, depending on what makes the story clearer.

Yes! That is why Tezuka still reads completely unique. Uh huh.

I mean it could be that I’m still a noob in the comic world. But y’all, the point is I liked the story and I connected with the emotions and I kept turning the pages (taking a break when they discussed the Japanese steel industry and flinching twice when the young girl gets slapped by a man—once because she stole a life’s work’s honor from one and once because she wanted to get rid of another’s child, which—I understand the first instance a lot better even if my kneejerk reaction is “Gah let’s not hit women”) until I hit the lonely, lonely end.

And ultimately, that’s the best measure I have as your Constant Reader.  

Friday, December 16, 2011

Auntie Zadie doesn't actually live here.

Book: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

Author: Zadie Smith

Published: 2009 (Penguin)

Pages: 297

I had been saving this collection since I bought it for something ridiculous like 90% off cover price in the last gasping summer days of my hometown Borders. Why? Because It's Zadie motherfuckin' Smith, author of three of my favorite novels, the first and the best of which she got published when she was twenty-four. White Teeth at twenty-four!

And so I was saving this because if I read it right when I bought it, it'd be over with too soon. I'd have no ZS to break the monotony of dead white lit fic I have a habit of putting way too much hope in.

And so, when her essays reveal a tremendous knowledge of literary theory and intellectual cultural analysis and only the briefest, unadorned glimpses of personal life, I was reminded of Stuff I've Read on the Internet (fuck save us all) that said she's kind of a cold person. 

I really don't want her to be like that. I want her to be a sister of literature, like she talks about in her essay on Their Eyes Were Watching God. I want to feel like she'd find a funny, easy way to break her favorite subjects down for us while letting her methods reveal how her own brain works.

Maybe these essays do, and her mind just works a lot more like a straightforward scholar than I want it to. Her collection of movie reviews for The Guardian are the strongest arguments for the possibility of her being the person I want her to be; but they're her briefest and least seriously structured. And I could track various tropes in her novels in subject matters, at the very least: Golden-era Hollywood, old fathers who started second lives, mixed race and age-gap marriages, straddling cultural lines and not being quite accepted on either side.

These are solid, excellently-written essays. But I was expecting a series of those chats you have with your best friend at two in the morning outside wandering back to their car when the air is clear enough to shoot your ideas back and forth on invisible telepathic lines. What I got was a series of discussions from a really good teacher. I learned more this way, but I missed the emotional high that comes from the matching of minds.

Translated: I am shamed into thinking I should've been an English major.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Life is a handful of short stories, pretending to be a novel."

Book: The Neon Wilderness

Author: Nelson Algren

Published: 1965 (Berkley Publishing Corporation, this edition at least)

Pages: 222

These stories are hard little punches of grim realism about people who can’t rise above the squalor of their lives. Some of them don’t even want to. A lot of them are losing boxers or disillusioned soldiers or beaten women. The rest are drunks and thieves, and boasters to a one. They all talk along a spectrum of Chicago dialect that’s surprising dense to get through and are all buried in bad luck they generally make for themselves.

And damned if it isn’t enjoyable to read about all of them. How does that even work?

All the gritty impulses Hemingway wants for himself, Algen has, plus a good sense of humor and a more baroque way of capturing complex emotions (PEOPLE FEEL THINGS AND IT’S COMPLICATED, HEMINGWAY) while staying true to whatever voice he’s channeling in a particular narrative. Which he manages to make sound completely unique each time, even though he’s basically writing about the same exact sort of people.

He also has a way of writing a last sentence that neatly wraps up each story, a feat I shall now attempt, and—oh, dammit, I already lost that one. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Useful advice plainly given

Book: By Cunning and Craft: Sound Advice and Practical Wisdom for Fiction Writers

Author: Peter Selgin

Published: 2007 (F+W Publications)

Pages: 255

If you’re a beginning writer, this book is full of solid, basic advice that is not afraid to tell you it means nothing if you don’t have instinct underpinning it all.

If you’re a veteran writer between projects, this is a good comforting reminder of what you already know but need to have planted deep into your words.

If you’re me, this book makes you think about and subsequently lose a little ground in a process that has slowly, shakily become subconscious enough for you to trust it by itself. (And you also read it in between other books because you've got a full-blown addiction to narrative.)

I so appreciate its pragmatic, mostly non-mystical approach. Selgin assumes you’ve already wrestled with that and won, so now down to brass tacks. He’s bitter about writing conferences even though he contributes to them all the time; he reuses the beginning paragraph of Moby Dick to illustrate like five different, unrelated points; he says snobby things about genre fiction (THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS, lit fic peers); and all of the examples he takes from his own works are stories about car rides to the point where I’m not sure if he writes about anything else.

But it’s definitely stuff every writer needs to know, presented clearly and simply without condescending. That is a minor miracle in writers’ manuals.  

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Keeping America safe (after checking with supervisors)

Book: Captain Freedom: A Superhero’s Quest for Truth, Justice, and the Celebrity He So Richly Deserves

Author: G. Xavier Robillard

Published: 2011 (HarperCollins)

Pages: 255

Everything exciting has already happened to Captain Freedom at this point in his career, but he’s not willing to accept that. He’s vain, kind of dumb, overconfident and delusional about it all. And dammit, he deserves public recognition and an official archnemesis!

So the search and clash of all this is played as satire on something nobody has ever skewered before, ever: modern celebrity culture </end sarcasm>. It hits hardest when Captain Freedom throws out asides that reveal what he thinks is perfectly normal. A lot of those are brilliant little nuggets of hilarious entitlement. The rest, the Big Picture, the part that’s probably supposed to be the book’s comedic backbone, the string of incidents that wander chronologically through his superhero life without linking together in an arc or overall theme—eh.

It wasn’t boring and it WAS funny, but it did seem aimless.     

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Love triangle number infinity

Book: The Marriage Plot

Author: Jeffrey Eugenides

Published: 2011 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Pages: 406

Internet rumblings + my university ID card still checking out books for me after I’ve made the leap from student to employee + Eugenides speaking here this coming spring + Middlesex = me finding and reading this book as fast as I could.

And the only reason I was disappointed was how can ordinary people in a college courtship postgrad marriage love triangle compete with hermaphrodites and a family of suicidal virgin sisters? Eugenides is brave for tackling such an ordinary subject in his unadorned prose, which brings weird things into the real world but keeps its real-world subjects small.

But he made me care about these people and wonder about the plausibility of happily ever after, and while he didn’t break the ground I think he meant to with the parallels of the Victorian novel marriage plot and its application to the late ‘80s/early ‘90s changing American dream, I wanted to know what happened to his fictional slice of it. And the ending was bittersweetly satisfying.

To the rumors!

“It’s Mary Sue-tastic!” I didn’t really get that. The female protagonist is a little empty, yeah, and mostly but not always described as pretty, but she’s in her early twenties and has no idea what she wants to do with her life. That totally happens all the time. And she has interests (Victorian novels!) and flaws (spoiled and indecisive and clingy!). I had more problems believing that her parents paid for her to wander, and get her apartment, and treat her boyfriend/husband’s mental illness, especially since they didn’t seem to like any of the choices she DOES make.

“It’s about David Foster Wallace’s bandanna and depression!” I mean maybe, in the troubled genius of the male antagonist. But I recognized the other guy in the love triangle a lot stronger. He was a lot like Walter from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom—a guy who works hard to make himself good and feels like he deserves something (the girl) for being able to repress his base urges so well.This guy makes better choices, though, which makes for a less brutal reading.

“It’s great!” “It’s terrible!” It’s good.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Everything they say is true

Book: Twilight
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Published: 2005 (Little, Brown and Company)
Pages: 498
This isn’t going to shed any new light on this book, including the book cover, so I’m just gonna answer some lingering questions you might have. I do this all for y’all. And because I feel like it’s only proper to finally confirm what I’ve been bitching about for the last six years.
Is Bella Swan a weak, dependent, whiny, and self-absorbed Mary Sue written as an everyday tomboy who has an unspecified unjustified something about her that makes her amazing? Yes.
Is Edward Cullen a creepy overprotective stalker who’s supposed to be the ultimate romantic? Yes.
Does this book shit all over the traditional vampire legend by picking what it wants and laughing at the rest and adding sparkling skin, flawless hair, and unparalleled baseball abilities? Yes.
Was the writing clunky and melodramatic, like a novel someone wrote in high school? Yes.
Was the plot compelling, though? …Yes, dammit.    
Does it remind me of what my favorite high school teacher said about how he teaches Romeo and Juliet, “It’s a story about two stupid teenagers disguised as a great love story”? Yes. A thousand times yes.  

Is it worrying that this is the only thing a lot of young impressionable kids are reading nowadays? Yes and no. They should read other, better stuff, and lots of it, but if they don't life will soon enough prove that Edward 'n Bella aren't a healthy relationship. I wince for the day of reckoning but it'll happen. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Doctor Who double feature

Book: Doctor Who: The Five Doctors (#81)
Author: Terrance Dicks
Published: 1983 (Target)
Pages: 128

Book: Doctor Who: Fury from the Deep (#110)
Author: Victor Pemberton
Published: 1986 (Target)
Pages: 189

Let’s be honest, I got into Doctor Who for David Tennant and his thousand-yard stare.

But I very quickly stayed for everything else. And these novelizations of the original TV show are just like watching episodes from when all the special effects were spray-painted cardboard instead of cheap CGI; that is to say, rollicking, unintentionally hilarious adventures where everyone is shouting exposition at each other and the Doctor just knows everything somehow and the companions alternate between terrified and indignant that no one believes him and there are monsters.

Fury from the Deep occasionally read like a PSA because the main monster was this giant sentient seaweed that tried to choke everybody and control their minds on this series of oil rigs, so “evil weed!” and “vile weed!” (heh, shot of honey mustard, stat!) were sprinkled in there. The characters were all pretty flat, of course, but I was disappointed this included the Doctor. And one of the companions, Jamie, was a Highlander only when the author remembered. Seriously, y’all, he said “Och!” and “duna worry” in between speaking like an American high schooler. And they got rid of the seaweed by amplifying the shattering sound waves of companion Victoria’s screams. And then afterward she decides to stay behind on the oil rig because she’s homesick and tired of almost getting killed by traveling with the Doctor.


Haha, I told y’all this was good.

The Five Doctors was better writing, more complex plotting, and more distinct characters. All five regenerations of the Doctor get pulled from their time streams back to Gallifray to play this deadly game buried deep in the timelords’ planet so they unwittingly spring the traps so the president chief timelord dude can get to the ancient ring that promises immortality. Which he gets, only in living stone instead of life like he thought.

I liked watching the Doctors interact with each other. They were each distinctive in appearance and temperament and I never mixed them up. This book brought together all the feistier companions, too, and including a brief cameo from Jamie that revealed he WEARS A KILT AND TAM O’SHANTER. ALL THE TIME.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s still all terrible writing. So many adjectives and adverbs, y’all. So very many. But I feel like Cardboard David Tennant approves. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Book: 11/22/63

Author: Stephen King

Pages: 842

Published: 2011 (Scribner)

Whatever else there is to say about him, Stephen King can tell a damn fine story when he concentrates and somebody gets brave enough to remind him that he still needs an editor. This book on time travel used to stop JFK’s assassination is proof I will drop upon his head if he ever lets something like Under the Dome out of his writing drawer again.

This one’s giant, meaty, compelling, and straightforward. Straightforward! In over 800 pages, he doesn’t make any unnecessary side trips, physical or philosophical, and the only reason I’m not calling that a miracle is because it didn’t feel miraculous. It felt—simple.

I won’t give away the whole plot since this is a brand-new book (for once), but basic outline: protagonist discovers a time travel portal in the back of his friend’s diner. It always leads to the same September morning in 1958. Diner owner uses it to buy meat super cheap and bring it back to the future. (One of my favorite details.) Diner guy is dying and wants protagonist to go prevent JFK’s assassination. Protagonist does and comes back to see how that’s affected 2011. Now between those last two sentences, add massive piles of well-intentioned lies, skipping towns, sporting bets, runs from the mob, using money to solve problems, murders, notes from the diner guy, shitty apartments, falling in love, sacrifices, consequences, Russian ex-pats, cigarette smoke, the Cuban Missile Crisis, blood, broken bones, and a past that DOES NOT want to be changed. Bam. You got yourself a long satisfying glut of Stephen King plotting.

His writing ticks (repetition, heavy reliance on exposition-tastic and unhumanly “hip” dialogue, overextended use of metaphor, defanged climax) are kept at a minimum, but he does do that thing where the protagonist is a bland everyman hero and the girl he falls in love with is even less sketched out. WHY AND HOW DO THEY LOVE EACH OTHER? I DON’T KNOW, and it’s the driving force for the novel’s full back half. Her major trait is she’s tall and clumsy and although she gets upset about the protagonist’s lies, she eventually just accepts him without any further explanation. I don’t know why she changed her mind. SHE doesn’t know why she changed her mind. Manic Pixie King Girl, right there.

And I so, so wish he would’ve written more deeply into a villain. He’s absolute best when he’s describing a psychopath unraveling. But from a characterization perspective, I do appreciate his ability to keep Lee Harvey Oswald a fully rounded human and not a cardboard holder of evil and guns.

It didn’t take me nearly as long as it should have to read this book because I kept wanting to know what happened, and the ending paid off my ignoring other things to read for a couple more hours. Which was awesome.    

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Talking with the ladies

Book: The Paris Review Interviews Women Writers at Work

Authors: various (and lots of prizes); edited by George Plimpton

Published: collection in 1998 (Modern Library)

Pages: 451

Interviewer: So, you're 22, have had two short stories published in a random university quarterly, are just coming off depression from not getting picked for Machine of Death Volume 2, will include the phrase "apple pie-scented box of shame" in your next writing, and just finished reading over 400 pages about ladies who accomplished more literature than you'll be able to catch up with even if you give up your day job and Mad Men addiction. How does that make you feel?

Constant Reader: Er. Can I quote Peggy Olsen?...

Interviewer: No. That just exposes how much you've been procrastinating.

Constant Reader: Fair enough. Well, I feel very tired after reading about all this awesome literature production. I feel like I've written all 70 of Joyce Carol Oates's novels while wearing the wrong prescription in those groovy giant glasses she wears in her author photo. But in a good way.

Interviewer: Is that possible?

Constant Reader: If I have enough caffeine in me, then yes.

Interviewer: What's it like reading about other writers' work habits?

Constant Reader: Addicting. I--hell, everybody--always think there's some sort of magic lurking just past their murmurs about early morning and longhand versus typewriters and various shades of seclusion. But it's not magic, and that might just be the most magical thing about it.

Interviewer: Is that encouraging at all?

Constant Reader: Encouraging and scary, yeah, but definitely doable. "I can work like this. Let's get liberated." HA.

Interviewer: You're going to turn into Peggy Olsen before you get to the end of season four.

Constant Reader: You say that like it's a bad thing. I just don't want her bangs. 

Library stash

In honor of my new day job, which involves writing for that letter-counting enforcer Twitter, I’ve decided to write one-sentence reviews of each of the library books that are due in two days.

Tyrants by Marshall N. Klimasewiski: Muddled stories that don’t really have anything to do with tyrants unless you count a sick mother (which I totally don’t, because, good fuck the lady couldn’t help it that she needed care) and Stalin (which I sort of do because he’s Stalin but even he’s softened in this one from the point of view of a maid who loves him).

Alternatives to Sex by Stephen McCauley: A middle-aged gay real estate man has a midlife crisis while trying to break his random hookup habit and reconciling his secret love of his flight attendant best friend, and it’s boring because all emotional points are repeated endlessly in breezy mental dialogues riddled with rhetorical questions that never get answered.

The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald: A thick juicy novel about child abuse, murder, a falsely convicted young man, and how family secrets fester and mingle on a Canadian air force base during the Cuban missile crisis and space race age that ends on the first truly emotionally shocking twist I’ve read in I don’t know how long.

House of Meetings
by Martin Amis: Interesting premise about a love triangle in the post-WWII Soviet work camps gets RUINED (RUINED I SHOUT-TYPE) through a rambling memoir style that confuses the whole plotline until I had no idea what the narrator was trying to say and stopped reading.

The only one I really got lost in was Ann-Marie MacDonald's. So go read that one and ignore the rest. You'll be fine.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Blade Runner the book

Book: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Author: Philip K. Dick

Published: 1968 (Del Ray)

Pages: 244

I’ve been wanting to read this book since I heard about the movie Blade Runner and that it was based on a book. Fortunately, I’ve just moved a very walkable distance from the main branch of my new county’s library system and had a disconcerting lunch that drove me in search of a giant pile of emotional reading. While I initially wandered in to idly check the sci-fi section, I got excited when I saw they finally had this one in and went a little apeshit in the rest of the general fiction. You’ll hear about the rest of those by November 19.

But! I digress! Unlike Mr. K. Dick, who cuts great swathes of plot about a bounty hunter who chases down androids to pay for a new, real animal in a world where that’s like buying a new car. He gets caught up in a tangle of questions about reality, empathy, and identity that pulls apart his world view. The book ends after he goes back home to his wife, before he can reconstruct anything, which didn’t bother me but did leave me wanting to know a little more.

The whole story was like that; it introduced a lot of metaphysical difficulties that I wanted K. Dick to explore better. I think another hundred pages of that and character distinguishing would have elevated this good read to excellent. He can’t improve a bit on that title, though. It’s magnificent.      

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Edible words

Book: Edible Stories

Author: Mark Kurlansky

Published: 2010 (Riverhead Books)

Pages: 265

Food is such a good revelation of our human natures because it’s a necessity that we can dress up to a luxury, the most raw biological process turned into high elaborate ceremony. Our relationships to it bring us together as cultures and push us apart into individuals as we make weird faces at our friends when they use too much ketchup on their fries. What, when, and how someone eats says a lot about them and their worldview. Also, a lot of it is delicious.

Kurlansky manages to wring some fleeting profundity from that line of thought in most of these stories. He uses recurring characters that slip and slide in and out of each other’s food lives to weave a sense of continuity that doesn’t stick well but provides nice consistent background in vignettes. The first one, about a guy who gets amnesia and loses his senses of smell and taste from falling in a hole, is my favorite. I like the semi-detached way his thought process is described and how it re-shapes his world from the inside out. In later stories, he ends up becoming a nationwide Food Network-type star and is scared to death that someone will find out his secret.

The story about a lady who goes to a Yankees game with her one-night stand and is bothered that he wants to eat a fancy spread he brought from home instead of ballpark hotdogs is interesting, too, but it never shows any glimpse of the absurdity that glimmers in unexpected but welcome places through the rest of the book.

The food is never as important as I think it will be in each story. I was hoping for more reliance on food as character building or explaining; but I wasn’t disappointed in the book as a whole. It was one of those books that in my head gets read by a soft, low voice with the slightest hint of a British accent. Translated into the real world that means I stayed pretty much interested the whole way through.

In this picture, the thing that looks like a hair is actually an antenna stuck to the sticky bit where the price sticker used to be. I finished this book the first night I spent in my new apartment and the first time I saw a bug in there, so, you know. Whap. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

DC's turn to save the universe

Book: The New Frontier (Absolute Edition)

Writer and illustrator: Darwyn Cooke

Colorist: Dave Stewart

Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher

Published: 2006 (DC Comics)

Pages: 405 (of story)

Bright colors, bold lines, sharply defined edges, Wonderwoman showing Superman the relativity of his strictly held values, origin stories that wind around each other and end up meeting at the Center to save the day from a giant sea monster, believable dialogue and introspection, investigative reporters who are more batshit insane about danger than the heroes they’re covering (hi, Lois Lane!)—yep, this comic collection has it all.

It better; it’s nothing less than the whole DC universe coming together. And that gets confusing sometimes, especially when you read giant chunks of it in one sitting like I did and always feel like you’re racing through the words without really studying the pictures so you force yourself to slow down like I do. The stories and voices do jump around but are easy enough to distinguish from each other, especially when the heroes start joining forces to save the world. (Don’t you love it when that happens?)

One irritating thing, though: a lot of the women have a close-up with the same expression. This one.

I’m not really complaining, because it’s adorable.  

Aw, yeah. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I give in to Prachett pressure.

Book: Making Money

Author: Terry Pratchett

Published: 2007 (Harper)

Pages: 404

Of course I like Terry Prachett. He prods at social and government structures (like the concept of paper money and the gold standard) with offhand British humor, reluctant heroes and glare-y villains who secretly know they’re a little ridiculous which makes them try all the more to compensate, general fantasy-tinged shenanigans, and a small mutt dog as majority shareholder of a bank that falls into the hands of the postmaster general who used to be a studied criminal until he was hanged only enough to let him escape into a different name.

Psychologically, I had to get over three things:
  • My disinclination to read anything of a series, especially a giant multi-book and –decade fantasy series like the Discworld novels, aka my horror of reading epics out of turn and missing vital things just because the library doesn’t have the whole set and how will I know to invest in the series if I don’t read all of them in the right order and ahhhh! First world bibliophile problems make the Constant Reader brain melt.
  • Overhyping of Pratchett, aka I’ve heard so much good that there’s no way he could be as witty as everyone keeps telling me. But he is. Like Douglas Adams, only with a little more sex and slightly less overt wordplay (subliminal pun count could still be anyone’s game).
  •  Wondering why I hadn’t yet read this, aka I vaguely remember buying this in the school bookstore like two years ago and if I haven’t managed it yet there must have been something TERRIBLY WRONG with the first sentence or something. Turns out my excuse was “or something,” which means none at all.

So. I understand the Prachett lure now. (Every time a book blogger types that, another fantasy author gets his/her black oversized cowboy hat.)

Friday, October 14, 2011

More plain good stuff

Book: The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories
Author: Carson McCullers
Published: 1971 (this edition, Bantam)

These read as Flannery O’Connor light, as in these stories strongly remind me of that more famous authoress and her favorite tropes without making me feel quite as depressed about mankind. O’Connor’s hypothesis seems to be that all people are evil if you give them a chance; McCullers concentrates on pure oddness that still goes bad a lot of times but also has redemptive qualities that nobody knows what to do with.

There’s a detached air of mystery about all the characters, which include a tough country broad and her hunchback distant cousin (in the title novella “The Ballad of the Sad Café”), a young piano prodigy who has to deal with giant expectations that she can’t fulfill (in “Wunderkind”), a transplanted European music teacher with delusions of grandeur that bother the hell out of her new boss for reasons he can’t explain (in “Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland”—I call dibs on that band name), and a jockey who is losing his touch and gaining weight and frustrated to the point of violence about it all (in “The Jockey”).

They’re interesting stories mined from everyday life and told in beautifully simple prose. I can't get enough of that. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"A great girlfriend gift"

Book: Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom

Author: Kristin van Ogtrop

Published: 2010 (Little, Brown and Company)

Pages: 259

Awe: the state in which I hold working parents. I have taken care of kids (daycare summer job) and am right now easing myself into a professional life; separately, each of those things have exhausted my punk ass to the point where I am really, sincerely, bewilderingly curious as to how the hell people do both at the same time without keeling over.

But: everything I’ve read about it has such a well-worn fondly crazy lightheartedness that I can’ tell what’s exaggerated for laughs and what’s damped down for sentiment. Van Ogtrop’s stories don’t go any deeper than the rest of them.

Can: it be something you just have to DO, like moving your legs when you want to learn how to run, or when you discover that nobody actually knows how to be an official adult and everyone just their way into it until something clicks?

Does: the blurb that says “The ideal girlfriend gift!” mean a great present for a significant other or something to give a female friend? Either way sounds a little insulting and presumptuous.

Everything: this does not make me want children. Like, at all. I’ll settle for cooing at them while their mothers are preoccupied, thanks, so maybe both of us can visit the other side of life for the brief second that will be all we need. Also, I wanna play with the Legos.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The movie might be better.

Book: Election

Author: Tom Perrotta

Published: Damn. I don’t know.

Pages: 200

Well, that was sort of shitty.

I’ve wanted to read Election for awhile, ever since I heard about the movie version and how good it’s supposed to be. Of course my first instinct was to think “I bet the book’s better” and then avoid both until I saw the book in a secondhand store and sat down to read the whole thing during the four hours I thought I had work which is actually tomorrow but I was already out and what the hell, home didn’t expect me back until 5 p.m.

This story’s concept is interesting and has a lot of natural dramatic potential. A well-liked high school teacher throws away two ballots to let his favorite student candidate win the election for school president. The story unfolds from all the major character’s perspectives, in clumps that were nicely organized by person but too short to allow any real characterization growth. (The janitor who finds the thrown-away ballots is more effective in his two or three paragraphs than the other characters who’ve had the whole book to stretch out.)

But Perrotta once again disappointed me with his lack of depth and subtle details that would’ve made everything way more dynamic. His Little Children is like this, too, another tension-filled conceit fumbled through flat characters and an environment just a little too generic to care about. And in both books, the characters are largely defined through badly timed sex with the wrong people.

That last would be a good thing, except it’s both non-explicit and has nothing to do with advancing the main plot. I require at least one kind of cheap thrills from marginal writing.

Sigh. Maybe the movie’s better. (Books, you make me sad when you make me say that.)