Friday, December 28, 2012

Guys, this is totally chick lit

Books: Good in Bed and Certain Girls

Author: Jennifer Weiner

Published 2001 and 2008 (Washington Square Press)

Pages: 375 and 384

I want Jennifer Weiner to give herself good material to back up her excellent arguments about the state of literature. She’s such an articulate defender of “Hey, guys? You know, how about we don’t worry about calling stuff ‘chick lit’ and just have fiction for everybody?” on her website and in her interviews and press.

But honestly? Her novels are her own worst enemies in that argument.

They try hard for substance with a light touch, like when her protagonist Candice Shapiro learns that her ex-boyfriend Bruce wrote a column in a national magazine about loving a larger woman. Which would be Cannie. Awesome premise, ridiculous enough to be authentically funny but still recognized as mortifying and a good start on a journey of self-discovery.  

Not a good premise: having the premature baby from the end of Good in Bed grow up into a teenager with health issues who wanders aimlessly through reading her mom’s old scandalous book and wondering about her biological dad and halfway thinking about planning her bat mitzvah and tracking down her long-lost grandpa. And then – spoiler alert – her stepdad dies. DIES. DROPS DEAD OF A HEART ATTACK WITH NO FUCKING HINT.

I turned the next few pages of Certain Girls looking for the joke or the awakening from the nightmare, but NO. That actually HAPPENS.

A bigger problem than that truly random plot twist, though, is that the protagonist in each novel is not nearly as persecuted as she declares herself to be. For every one person who does her wrong (Bruce), she’s got friends and a supportive family and a dog and even strangers to reassure her that she’s awesome and will get through this. 

I love Cannie as a person, though. Not really as a character, because for all the stuff she goes through she doesn’t really change, but if she were real I feel like I’d want to eat fatty food and talk about pop culture and boys and help her try to get her dog to answer to a different name and compare writing ambitions with her.

That’s why I kept reading these books, and that’s why they ended up disappointing me. Donate. Sigh.

The writer lived down in Georgia

Book: Everything That Rises Must Converge

Author: Flannery O’Connor

Published: 1956 (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Pages: 269

Pro tip: don’t read Flannery O’Connor to cheer yourself up. I might’ve mentioned that before, but it’s a damn good thing to remember. This book has nine stories; body count = 10. Only one of which is of natural causes.

Don’t go thinking you’ll need a hankie to mop up all the melodrama, though, because it’s the opposite. She writes so matter-of-factly in such deftly tuned dialects that backwoods psychopaths sound like the normal, sane majority of the world and then you creep yourself out when you realize you’re nodding along to the reasons a jealous grandpa is beating his granddaughter. (For being pure Pitts, of course, just like the no-good daddy who leads her into the woods with angry scowls and his belt while she claims she never let anybody beat her in her life.)

“Parker’s Back” was my favorite, about this tattooed guy who’s been careful to keep his back clear until one day he doesn’t know how to make up with his super-religious wife (or even why he wants to make up with her in the first place) so he gets Jesus tattooed on his one clean space and she hates it and calls him a blasphemer and the last scene is her watching him have a breakdown under their yew tree.

“Everything That Rises Must Converge” is good, too, a neat little dissection of ironic hatred twisting in on itself as a son takes great glee in watching his prejudice mother discover that she’s wearing the same hat as a black lady while they’re riding the bus (to the mother’s “reducing” class at the Y, which isn’t super important but is a detail I love). He takes way too much pleasure in watching her squirm and trying to strike up friendships with black people on the bus and then gets to watch her collapse of a heart attack when they get off.

Each story is creepy in its own take on the theme of the quiet horror and ugliness that runs through people and how believably and easily it fits into their lives. Bookshelf, of course. O’Connor is one of my writing role models in that she writes incredibly simply to make complex emotions clear without pulling any of their power. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Changing lives since 1963

Book: It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement

Author: Betty Friedan

Published: 1976 (collection; Random House)
Pages: 388

It’s a little worrying how relevant these writings still seem today in this space-age year of 2012. We still have wage issues, and dammit-they’re-our-own-bodies issues, and nobody’s even come close to working out how to put together a strong career and raising kids without compromising severe amounts of sleep.

Considering all that, these are smart writings by the lady who started it all. She tells you exactly how she started it all, and exactly where it started to get away from her, and at some point when she was discussing how the movement is (was, in 1975) fracturing, I wanted to tell her, “Lady, lesbians have feelings too.”

She puts these essays, news reports, NOW meeting notes, and interviews in rough chronological order, which is logical, but they’re each written for a slightly different audience, so there’s a lot of overlap. 
Especially when she gets to her McCall’s columns; those were written for a mass audience who didn’t know what feminism was actually meant to mean, so she tends to condescend and sentimentalize so Mrs. Still-a-Housewife won’t keep thinking that “equal rights for women” equals “bra-burning ladynazis who don’t need men.” She’s superadiment about still liking men, y’all, and I agree with her insistence on bringing men on board and making everybody equal instead of insisting that women are more awesome than men, but by the end she’s focusing way too much on why the new NOW leadership is too radical than what’s the next thing she can do about breaking the glass ceiling.

With intros sometimes as long as a piece itself, these writings get repetitive when read straight through. (My boyfriend says The Feminine Mystique is like that too. I wonder what she would think about that, about how equally we’ve shared the work of reading her writings.) BUT it’s an excellent collection with a piece for every audience, so it will go on my bookshelf.

Y’all, I’m trying to remember where I got this book. I honestly have no idea. It was free, though, and as such was worth it and more.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Family to the ends of the Earth

Book: Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Author: Maria Semple

Published: 2012 (Little, Brown)

Pages: 336

This book has been staring at me from Barnes and Nobel for months now, but it’s been a hardback and dammit, I can’t buy ALL the Art Deco covers with interesting titles and actually read them before I die, but I dearly want to, and fortunately my boyfriend gave this very one to me to hand back to the library.

After checking it wasn’t due for another few days (I’m not a complete heathen), I started it and kept going until I discovered where Bernadette landed after she couldn’t take Seattle, its pretentious room mothers, its Microsoft office, its bad drivers, her mysteriously disastrous architectural past, and its people in general any longer.

SPOILER: It’s Antarctica, where her daughter wanted to take a cruise with the family. But Bernadette was planning on chickening out but at the last second she decided to go but by then her husband and his administrative assistant decide to stage an intervention for her and an FBI guy is tracking down the personal assistant Bernadette hired over the Internet because it’s an identity scan.

Whew. Yeah. A lot of stuff happens, in the tradition of shit collecting and sticking to more as it rolls downhill, and Bernadette’s daughter learned about all of it from a package of documents that her arch enemy sends her, so Bernadette’s daughter is able to track her down, hang out in the subfreezing cold for a bit, and bring her back on the next flotilla out there.

I really liked the daughter adding her perspective in between the documents she put together; her voice unites the different, sometimes chaotic tone of all the emails and faxes and school letters and such. I also liked the daughter as a general character. She’s smart without being precocious and she takes certain things in her life for granted like kids from a solid family does and uses that as fuel to drive her investigation about her mom. She’s a good character to ground all the rest of this craziness in.

But what’s the big secret her mom keeps alluding to? I mean, is it that giant disaster that drove her mom out of architecture thirty years ago? Because they reveal that fairly early without really saying what a giant secret it really is until later. Or is it the miscarriages Bernadette had before she had a daughter who lived? But her surviving daughter already knows about those before the story starts.

I don’t know. And it didn’t seem like a big deal to miss it, because everyone goes home happy and loved and I really felt like they all earned it. Good adventure that I had to turn in after it was over.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Comics deep and wide

Books: JLA: Welcome to the Working Week and Black Orchid

Authors: Patton Oswalt, Neil Gaiman

Illustrators: Patrick Gleason and Christian Alamy; Dave McKean

Published: 2003 and 1991 (both DC)

Can this be considered fanficition when Patton Oswalt is already a published writer? Or if the only slash bit of this fiction is in daydream form? I don’t care. This is fun. It’s about a freelance writer who puts together his own zine about superheroes. One day his town is attacked by aliens and shortly thereafter air-vacced into this space bubble so the Justice League can get rid of the aliens and then zap people back down into oblivious safety.

But the Patton stand-in secretly stays on board to get an exclusive on how the JLA spends the week. His answer: all over the frickin’ place saving the world nonstop. It’s pretty much like he thinks it will be, aka awesome, only so much more intense than he thought that he gets sloppy and gets caught. Wonder Woman uses her Lasso of Truth on him (reference the above daydreaming), and Batman is a controlling jerk but gets things done, and in the end we learn from a winking aside that he was meant to see all that as sort of a reminder that everything was going to be okay.

So! Good fun, bright art that was a little confusing to follow, but a better than a lot of the everyday-schlub-gets-in-on-the-action storylines out there.

Now we descend into the earth and follow roots of radical botany to find the Black Orchid blossoming into a flower-woman crime fighter who gets lit on fire by Lex Luther’s henchmen and revenged by her daughter blossoms who escape their greenhouse to lure the henchmen into the Amazon rain forest. Neil Gaiman goes into Arkham, guys! With David McKean! It’s that dark, murky artwork streaked with bright violet and facial details and smeared blood setting off tough words about finding identity and natural justice. It’s gorgeous and disturbing and a very grave counterpoint to the JLA’s whacky highjinks.

Good contrasting pair that show completely different points on the comics spectrum. I would put them both on my bookshelf but neither one is mine.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Walking the line

Book: Let the Great World Spin

Author: Column McCann

Published: 2009 (Random House)

Pages: 349

A man tightrope walking across the World Trade Center towers is a small excuse to tell the stories of an expanding grid of New Yorkers who saw, or knew people who saw, or loved someone who heard someone who saw it. But it works.

There’s the Irish priest who tries his best to take care of prostitutes in Brooklyn, and a mother-daughter prostitute pair, and the daughter prostitute’s daughters, and the Irish priest’s brother, and the obliterating van accident that kills the daughter prostitute and the Irish priest and how that affects everyone in that circle.

There’s the circuit judge who tries the tightrope walker for vandalism, and his wife who’s joined a support group of other women with sons dead from Vietnam, and the black lady in that group who always looks way more “churchy” than she really is, and the unlikely friendship between them, and the daughter prostitute’s daughters who end up in the care of the churchy-seeming lady and the judge’s wife.

There’s the tightrope walker, who isn’t much more than pretentious about how he finds his center to do what he does.

Eh. I appreciate the event to tie everyone together—the stories would’ve maybe felt just a little too loose to tie together otherwise—but it was almost unnecessary and easily the least interesting bit. Everyone else’s, in different voices that were distinct but still completely clear, found quiet, real poetry in common tragedies and how their different effects spiraled outward into unexpected ways and places.


The Nobel Prize of terrible writing

Book: Prizes

Author: Erich Segal

Published: 1995 (Ballentine)

Pages: 497

This guy, y’all. THIS GUY.

He’s turned BORING. He’s PHONING IT IN.

I picked up Prizes during my last Book Dispensary shelving stint before Thanksgiving for a spontaneous trashy-read vacation. And SEGAL DISAPPOINTED ME. He heaped on clichés, over-explained metaphors, threw in a surprised parentage and not one but two tragically fatal degenerating diseases, and he forgot to make the actual plot, aka the race for the Nobel prize, interesting AT ALL. All he threw in there were some three-quarter-hearted purple prose romanticizing science between describing perfect soul mates, how they would change the world, and the completely fabricated obstacles that never actually cause any problem anyway.

Nicholas Sparks read Segal so hard, y’all. So hard.

Two sidenotes:
  •  Nobody should ever say “making love” except Robert Plant or Barry White. The end.
  • Seriously, I think all these scientists are wasting away because they all sleep like two hours a night for years at a time. I guess that’s kind of realistic but it made me tired and skeptical.

I’m taking this to my parents’ house when I get back there for Christmas because Mom said she wanted to read it. She can keep it. I’m okay with that because she goes through a book pile exactly like I do which means she’ll get to this in like ten years. Maybe I’ll be able to talk her out of it by then. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Book: Djibouti

Author: Elmore Leonard

Published: 2010 (HarperCollins)

Pages: 279

I have a problem with the cooch dancers, y’all. What do they wear in Djibouti?

This book doesn’t tell me. It doesn’t tell me about Djibouti’s beaches, either, or its terrain, or anything beyond vague middle-eastern archetypes about the people and the land that’s supposedly so  overabundant of ethnic/cultural atmosphere that threatens to take over the real subject, which is pirates.

So says the brilliant documentary maker’s camera man as I read about him and her watching the rough cuts of her new film on her Mac.

Seriously, that’s how they show off the land and most of the rising action: by describing to each other what they’re seeing on a 17-inch screen while they’re holed up in the underground bits of a small, intentionally nondescript boat.

I know that’s how you actually edit film, but hot damn, people, you had to go out and actually shoot something in, like, real life, too. WHY DIDN’T YOU TAKE US WITH YOU?

The last third or so of the book gets into the real world, finally, but by then the characters all feel like plot points, and nobody’s nearly as interesting as they’re supposed to be, and the author lapses into speech fragments just when every word is starting to count to follow the plot, and the young documentary maker sleeps with her old camera guy for no reason whatsoever before, during, or after, and – spoiler alert – something blows up in the end only slightly off plan, and people are running from the police and al Queda, which – another, perhaps more reassuring spoiler alert – are not the same thing.

And then it tries to wring some drama out of whether the documentary maker should make her piracy film a documentary or a Hollywood movie. Can you switch like that? She HAS won an Oscar, at least in this world, so can she just wave that around at her Macbook and say, “Get me Cameron Diaz for the role of the spunky young documentary maker of justice who falls for her worldly camera guy!” I don’t think that’s ever resolved, and if it is, I’ve already forgotten, because I never cared in the first place.

It had such potential, you guys. I love the idea of following a documentary-lady around in an exotic world, seeing what makes her take notice and what she pieces together about the piracy movement through stolen interviews and gunfights over her footage. Sadly, there is none of that here. Donate.

This is the same guy who wrote Get Shorty and Be Cool, both of which I kind of wanted to read (been shelving copies of them at the Dispensary every time they put me on the crime beat), but those are both about film stuff, too, and no way in hell am I going to chance picking up another book to read about another screen. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Ghosting-chasing the orchid

Book: The Orchid Thief

Author: Susan Orlean

Published: 1998 (Ballentine)

Pages: 282

Finding this book in real life made me wonder for just a second if the universe’s prop department was working overtime. Which is a fancy way of saying Adaptation is one of my favorite movies and so surreal that I never fully believed it was based on a real book until I read that book myself.

There are over 30,000 different species of orchid and apparently a fanatic to go with each one. This is the story of, like, six or seven as told to a New Yorker staff writer while she trekked through Florida swamp, Seminole land, and hurricane-ravished greenhouses in a search that became increasingly about finding her own grasp of passion among people she desperately wants to understand.

She never quite does, but she gets pretty damn close, symbolized by the ghost orchids she seeks with increasing urgency but never finds in bloom. The further I got in, the faster I read to see what else she would unpeel about this story.

Her guide—well, entry, at least—into this world is John Leroache, who comes across as a self-taught borderline hillbilly (the rest of the South knows that Florida is just different, y’all) possible genius with a noticeable amount of ADD sprinkled into how he picks, obsesses over, and drops interests. His tangents give her an excuse to wander through the histories of Florida land scams, Native American migration, plant scouting and domestic cultivation, and her own resistance to letting her roots grow too deep.

It’s all interesting and all fits together somehow and all feels like wandering through the thought process of a smart lady learning everything she can about something new. I wish there had been photos, because I couldn’t picture the different flowers in my head as she described them because I don’t have a baseline of what an orchid looks like beyond this cover. Which part is the “lip,” again?

Once in awhile I could tell the original article she wrote from the New Yorker had been basically copied and pasted into the middle of this manuscript because she would introduce people that she’d already talked about. And if I squinted one eye and mentally rearranged some chronology, I could maybe see where it could be pasted into a movie, albeit a much more low-key one than Caughmann’s.

There is still a central thread of following an obsession to see how far it will make a person go, and that will always lead to wonderfully strange places.

Bookshelf. Also reminded me to grab my good DVDs from my parents’ house and finally bring them to my apartment over a year later. Finally starting to feel like this place is actually mine.       

Bumbling towards the princess

Book: Heroics for Beginners

Author: John Moore

Published: 2004 (Penguin)

Pages: 246

Prince Kevin’s really more of a diplomat (some would say “coward,” but he’d give them a really dirty stare) than a warrior, so when he learns that his love Princess Rebecca has to marry the first guy who rescues her dad’s Infernal Artifact from the evil overlord who stole it for a hefty dose of science-as-magic mcguffin, he leans heavily on a practical guide to becoming a hero.

Becky already loves him and they go to half-hearted sitcom trope lengths to hide their lusty high school-sweethearts-level relationship, so all Kevin really has to worry about is getting zapped by He Who Must Be Named, Lord Voltmeter (ten bucks if you CAN’T name that allusion), beating another flashier hunkier dude to the chase, and getting tied up/seduced by Voltmeter’s evil assistant. Oh and finding his way out of the evil fortress, which is harder than it seems and more helpful to his battle than it sounds.

The writing is funny, using a big dose of wise-assery to make sure the story never takes itself seriously but still managing to wring suspense out of it. There’s nothing too radically subversive—it stays on the “hey, aren’t these conventions a little ridiculous but don’t you love them anyway?” side of teasing—but it’s propulsive and convincing and a great way to ease into fantasy through the gift shop.

Bookshelf! Except somebody else’s because I need something to take with me to a holiday party thrown by an RPG-er.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Big bad wolf of adolescence

Book: The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales

Author: Bruno Bettelheim

Published: Vintage Books (1977 edition; originally 1975)

Pages: 310 (plus lots of end notes)

Fairy tales help us work through our weird bits before we even realize what the weird bits are trying to tell us, in a way that uses an extra layer of symbolism to both aid our understanding and squish the weird bits down to sizes we can comfortably conquer.

Boom. That’s Bettleheim’s thesis, although he uses way more Freud.

It’s a good one, one that restores my faith in stories. I guess—no, I know from personal experience that getting older partially means questioning things that aren’t immediately and obviously useful as we try to figure out what we can and can’t live without. Stories seem frivolous on the surface, but they help us explore what it’s like to be human and all the infinite options of how to deal with that.

He goes through a lot of examples of symbolism, most of which have to do with puberty (Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldilocks and the Three Bears), the Oedipal complex (Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella), and both at the same time (Snow White). This was written in the 1970s, and I dunno if psychologists have proven Freud wrong or severely misguided or something since then, but even if the particulars (like a glass slipper = vagina symbol; it makes sense but I’ve never thought of it that way which then again might be the whole point, right?) aren’t hard and fast, the basic premise of using fairy tales to slay real dragons still has a crap ton of evidence underneath it all.

And it’s fascinating to read. Even if they deal with the same subject, no two fairy tales deal with it the same way, so there are lots of angles to explain and contrast. Everything underlines how complex humans don’t even realize they are but managed to pack into their folklore.

 You’ll be able to follow the psych lingo if you’ve ever had a passing intro reading/class relationship with the subject, so dig right in. Just don’t eat the apple or the housing material or the porridge or the breadcrumbs leading from the forest in case you scar the children for life.

Bookshelf! Yay for growing my nonfiction!

Tear-soaked from the headlines

Book: The Promise of Stardust

Author: Priscille Sibley

Published: HarperCollins (2013--!)

Pages: 399

Here is what I was thinking once this book laid out its central premise and started “building”:

I put building in quotes because everything just spins in place while people pontificate their beliefs at each other.

SO MUCH MELODRAMA, Y’ALL. There’s a lady who watched her mom die slowly from a vegetative state so the lady makes it clear that she never ever wants to be put on life support herself. Cut to an accident that leaves her brain-dead…but she’s pregnant. So the lady’s husband fights to keep her alive long enough to deliver to baby to term because that’s what she would’ve wanted, dammit! Don’t make me speechify all the emotions I’ve ever had for her since we met when we were kids!

He’ll do it anyway. Hint to authors: making emotions louder makes them more ridiculous. If everyone starts lecturing everyone on (1) their fierce emotional bonds with the person in question and (2) exactly how strong that makes their emotional telepathy with the human being who is no longer human, then you smother the human that we’re supposed to care about under, like, legal bickering and overworked sentimentality.

And I so wanted to care about this lady, because she was an astronaut and a little scatterbrained and had trouble carrying pregnancies to term in the first place when she really wanted kids.

But SPOILER ALERT everything turns out okay in the end. I mean, she dies, but the kid comes out okay, and I did keep reading this every day at lunch to remind me of how awesome it is to work in a library and just have advanced reader’s copies lying around on breakroom tables (can I get an “Aw yeah”?).


Okay. I’m done here.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ongoing source for lit fic fix

Book: The Best American Short Stories 2004

Author: various (editors: Lorrie Moore and Katrina Kenison

Published: Houghton Mifflin (2004)

Pages: 429

The Best American Short Stories series is an annual dose of nicely-written lit fic angst sprinkled with the occasional weirdo and mythical creature plunked into modern society. 2004's edition is no exception. 

Does that make it sound like all the volumes in the series? Well, it kind of is. Does that make it sound boring? Sure, it SOUNDS boring if you put it like that, but the stories are all of the amusing variety. And that is the key to lit fic: take a basic premise and find a (non-gimmicky) way to make it unusual enough to become interesting. Reading the Best American series does the hard work for the you and the me, dear reader, by having its guest and series editors read about a billion short stories over the course of the given year and picking out the best and presenting them in these nifty softbacks with minimal art. 

Standouts in this volume include:

  • a homeless Native American trying to raise money to buy back his grandmother's ceremonial clothes only to not realize how he automatically pisses away each dollar he gets when he does get money; first-person narrative is revealing in a way the character doesn't notice even though he's doing the talking
  • a teacher who gets her students to write their own evaluations; the unexpected reactions from the parents jar nicely with the teacher's idealism
  • little girls trying to win a Biblical Halloween costume contest by going as Salome and John the Baptist; I love how it's conveyed that the girls know enough that they're doing something wrong but not enough to know why they should be ashamed
Great series, good vintage. Bookshelf beside by 2007-2009 collection (to grow soon! I have money and a Barnes and Noble!)

Monday, October 15, 2012


Book: Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl

Author: Stacey O’Brien

Published: 2008 (Free Press)

Pages: 224


The actual story is more in-depth than this. This lady took in an injured baby barn owl and raised it and they become best friends for fifteen years. I’m so glad the author’s a biologist who jokes about owl shit and frets about getting enough live mice to kill for the owl and reluctantly records the owl’s mating screeches while the owl makes it with her arm. For science!

Her science knowledge makes a squishy adorable animal story more authentic and enthusiastic with facts and not sentiment. Although there’s plenty of both, the loving bits are much more believable when she’s so unflinching about how much hard work this is.

There are a few human details that she skims over—when she starts talking about her career and how she got into biology, she’s got a random paragraph about how she and her sister were famous child actors who were also a family singing group, which—what? When? How did this happen with such normal-sounding parents? How did that segue into biology and owl love and, later, ultimately a career in UNIVAC computers?

She presents just enough despair over her dating life to hint at loneliness that is both helped and hurt by her owl, but there’s not enough details to know why she was so in love with this one dude that it put her in a deep depression when it didn’t work out or why it didn’t work out with this other guy who seemed to mesh really well with her owl life.

I imagine that’s just to keep the focus on the owl and to keep the book from becoming the author’s autobiography. She’s got a refreshing straightforward style that doesn’t allow for human nuance but does really well to endear the owl and his growing personality to the reader through a biological understanding that goes into the whole essence of sharing a life with a loved one.

Also, did you know that owls aren’t water birds? They don’t generally go near it because they get all the moisture they need from the mice they swallow whole, and their flying feathers don’t dry as fast or as well as other birds. This owl didn’t know that. He loved playing in the water, and how she eventually managed to blow-dry him is a highlight of face-meltingly cute pet rearing.

Did I mention there are pictures, you guys? THERE ARE AND THEY ARE AWESOME. Sadly, I must return this book to the library. 

Adventurous nesting dolls

Book: Cloud Atlas

Author: David Mitchell

Published: 2004 (Random House)

Pages: 509

This is like five novels dissected and nested into each other in a narrative structure that sounds so gimmicky it should get its own reality show.

But it works! So well! And it’s all David Mitchell’s fault!

A missionary’s Pacific diary gets into the library of a famous decaying composer whose scheming protégé writes letters to a scientist who helps an investigative journalist dig into a radioactive conspiracy whose story becomes a novel manuscript sent to a failing vanity press whose owner…something something, connection I forgot to a cloned servant whose life of awakening and rebellion in a futuristic China is recorded and preserved into the rebuilding of a post-apocalyptic society. And back again.

Each section has a completely unique voice that fits seamlessly into its time period, narrator temperament, and angle of adventure. (There’s always adventure.) This is David Mitchell’s strength—like, he must lift character voice weights five or six times a week because his words absolutely disappear into pitch-perfect dialect and internal monologues of whoever he’s writing for.

The interrupted style of narrative also helps keep the strong verbal ticks of each section from overwhelming the stories here, except in the middle. That one, the post-apocalyptic society trying to rebuild its connections with the rest of the world, is uninterrupted (cascading to the back ends of the others) and also leans the heaviest on self-developed slang.

But it’s so worth it. Each of the narratives touch on the one behind them in natural ways that emphasize the connectivity of time instead of winking and nudging the reader. Each one deals with revolutions and revelations and sends out branches and roots to reach out to each other and sketch out a very rough map of a giant chunk of human history.

The A.V. Club podcast says the movie doesn’t use this structure but is instead like a giant montage sequence, which I now have to see to decide if that’s a genius or terrible way of adapting this. Read the book for sure, though. (In fact, read David Mitchell in general. His Black Swan Green shows yet more of his range through a painful, pitch-perfect year in the life of a British schoolboy during the late 1980s.) Bookshelf! 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What makes a character so annoying?

Book: Kissing Games of the World

Author: Sandi Kahn Shelton

Published: 2008 (Shaye Areheart Books)

Pages: 383

Y’all, I’ve been sitting on this review for like a week trying to come up with a better reason for hating this book than “The characters are really annoying.” But since I’m not going for a grad degree in Comparative Literature here…well, the characters are really annoying. There. I said it. Now let’s dissect.

The main guy is quippy to show how hilariously out of whacky touch he is while trying to reunite with his young son, the main lady is okay except when indulging in hippie artist stereotypes or trying to be anything remotely sexual, their limp half-assed attempts at hating each other so the sex is hotter have no motivations until afterward when the author shoehorns ‘em in, and all the tertiary characters exist solely to have truth-telling talks and witty one-liners that spell out the protagonists’ motivations for them with all the originality of form found in a PowerPoint presentation.

Seriously, the story about a guy who lets his estranged dad take care of his son while the guy goes corporate after his wife dies, and the lady artist who lives with the dad and helps raise his son with her own while being a strictly platonic yet emotionally vital housemate could’ve done all the heavy lifting itself. Not everything has to have a romantic side to it, y’all, and this could have been such an excellent example of that.

Instead, we get hi-larious cranky-kids-be-travelin’ highjinks coupled with slutty yoga instructor sister advice that seriously changes every damn time she says something.

I don’t even know. It’s not good, so I’m going to put it in the donate pile. (Beware Goodwill in two or three months when I’m done weeding the shit out of my current pile. It’s going to be all my annoyed posts concentrated into one plastic bag black hole of sucky literature at 50 cents a pop.) Don’t pick it up, though, unless you want to hunt for motivations. I’m done.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I see the light and it's made of lasers!

Book: The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF

Authors: Lots (edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer)

Published: 1994 (collection; Tor)

Pages: 988

Holy shit was this book ever difficult to get through, guys.

Let me clarify right now that I don’t mean because of the quality; it was purely a size thing. Almost 1000 pages crammed with tiny type about physics and biogenetics and astronomy and advanced mathematics and, weirdly enough, more than one whirlpool. Plus dragons.

I’ve been chipping away at this collection since the beginning of July, and it really helped to take two, several-smaller-books-sized breaks. Even then, finishing it still gives my brain that way-too-full sensation of going to a museum and reading every single plaque next to every single exhibit. Ow.

And that is what this gi-fucking-normous book functions best as: a very complete history of sci fi. (Well, up to a point. The youngest story in here is older than I am.) I read it because I want to learn more about the genre, and it gave a really thorough tour through a lot of different trope origins, teaching by showing off examples. Which was the best way to learn, because here you get all the lasers and moon colonies where people have already gotten cynical about the wonders of space and deep-sea aliens and sentient monkeys who escape wearing orange Bermuda shorts and carrying their typewriters and children’s games that lead into another dimension and Asimov computers compiling information about life’s biggest question until the end of time.

It’s all blended together, in case you can’t tell. I think partly because I read all the intros to the stories, too, which each boiled down to “This guy is awesome and [chose one] severely under-appreciated” OR “recognized as one of the leading writers of the genre and a bunch of people still copy him.”

(Regarding that last adjective, there are a relatively decent number of female authors represented here, which is to say two more beyond Anne McCaffery [dragons!] and Ursula K. Le Guin. The collection was also co-edited and compiled by a lady.)

I thought the one they chose for Poe was weaksauce because it’s a sailor describing how he got out of a whirlpool, which, while still affecting, was the most conventional Poe story I’ve ever read. Also, maybe I’m just not appreciating historical nuance, but H.G. Wells’s “Hey, Tanks!” (actual title: “The Land Ironclads”) was also not nearly as good a representation of that author as they could’ve picked. And I can’t really get over McCaffery’s dragons getting put into a collection dedicated to hard sci fi when the definition of the subgenre specifically eliminates magic as a reason for anything.

But once I got into the rhythm and let my eyes skim the passages with incomprehensible engineering equations in them, I had a great time. I’m struggling with the decision about what to do with this physical book now, though. To the pros and cons list!

It throws my spine out of whack whenever I try to lug it around in my shoulder bag, and I automatically deduct major points from any reading material I can’t carry with me at all times.
As a city girl whose pedestrian ways has grown a healthy wariness of potential muggers, I appreciate having a blunt object that will stun but not kill and look completely innocent while doing so.

I can’t see myself ever plowing through the whole thing again, like, ever.

But it’d be great to have to spot-check and keep as a future readings list for authors I would never come across again.

Oh, hell, I’ll just keep the damn thing so I’ll have an excuse to either weed my crowded fiction bookshelf or build another one that looks like the TARDIS. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Totally biased double feature

Books: This is How You Lose Her and NW

Authors: Junot Diaz and Zadie Smith

Published: 2012 (Riverhead and Penguin)

Pages: 213 and 401 (614 total)

Two of my favorite authors came out with books IN THE SAME MONTH (this one), and I really don’t feel like I can be objective about either one. Like, at all. But more than anything, this blog is to keep track of what I read and how it goes, so I’ll tell you why I thoroughly enjoyed both (big surprise) and you take it with a big grain of fangirl “squeeeee!” Deal?

Zadie Smith’s NW takes her usual themes of racial and class tensions and expectations slowly souring and drills deeper into a narrower space with them. Her history of two school friends and their life journeys that bring both of them back to their old Northwest neighborhood to uneasy relationships with each other and their spouses is very simple stuff at its core: people try to make themselves better and most often succeed just enough to be disappointed in themselves for the rest of their lives. The ordinary story works better than it should because of Smith’s stylized, stream-of-consciousness-ish narrative.

I can already see you rolling your eyes, but wait—she writes it just disjointed enough that it feels like following true thought processes, which brings intimacy to characters that aren’t nearly as exciting as her usual rag-tag bands of weirdos trying to fit in, and piecing together the chronology puts you right in the center of all of it. It ends inevitably, which isn’t exciting for this kind of story, but you do leave with a sense of peace. At least I did.

Junot Diaz brings back Yunior (hey, niño!), the narrator of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, to a series of short stories that lament and expand upon his Dominican heritage and love life. Both of those things are so tightly woven together it’s inevitable that they bring disaster upon each other. The most straightforward example of that is when he takes his girlfriend to the Dominican Republic for a fixing vacation when she doesn’t want to go or fix them. His manual on how to get over the love in your life once she finds out about you cheating is at once great, because of the hurting truths and shear amount of Spanish cursing, and depressing, because you feel every ounce of hurt he does when his physical coping mechanisms (running, yoga, walking) physically break his body just when he learns how to rely on those distractions to get him through the molasses-heavy time of Life Afterward.

Diaz wins out because Yunior is lively with everyman insights and optimism that makes reading him a great one-way conversation, but Smith still impressed me with her interior portraiture. Go read both!

These are two library books, so I will have to return them, but now’s my chance to remind you that libraries have awesomeness for free.    

Friday, September 14, 2012

Rich white guy gets old and worries about it

Book: About Schimdt

Author: Louis Begley

Published: 1997 (Ballantine)

Pages: 273

Maybe it’s because estate law is boring, or because his daughter never becomes enough of a character to feel strongly about their central conflict one way or another, or because he’s a rich old white guy who finds being a retired slightly less rich old white guy really difficult and doesn’t know how to transcend that pain out of its inherent pettiness—I didn’t like poking around in Schimdt’s head.

It was dull and cranky and, worst of all, had no story in it. He does things, such as hate the fact that his daughter is marrying a Jewish guy. And things are done to him, mostly sexual advances from the females who are not related to him. But they are clichés strung together and hitched in the middle by a dying relative inheritance coincidence that puts him comfortably ahead of where he started literally without him doing a thing.

I’m donating this one. Maybe a ready-to-retire WASP will pick it up and read it, then shudder and go do exciting and/or useful things with the rest of their life.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

His pretty good but dissipating materials

Books: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials)
Author: Philip Pullman
Published: 1995, 1997, and 2000 (Yearling)
Pages: 399, 326, and 518 (1243 total)

SPOILER ALERT right here at the top because I want to talk about the ending of this series RIGHT NOW, y’all.

It makes everything not matter. All the epic battles for multiple worlds’ happiness and sustainability? Turns out they were completely unnecessary because the love two 12-year-olds find for each other emits, like, happy sex rays that calm everything down before they have to part very melodramatically and seal up the window that lets them go into each other’s world. And they have to each stay in their own world because of magical rules that they have to follow to be good people instead of selfish teenagers who will never ever find anyone they love as much ever.

Yeah. So, I actually really liked this series. And the ending would’ve been fine, maybe a still a little eye-rolling, but neat and understandable as a wrap-up if the battles between Church and witches and armored polar bears and Arctic explorers and kids who can jump worlds with knives and angels and little animal soul companions were the bits that decided things and the romance was a bittersweet little postscript that brought the epic-scale epicness of everything else down to the personal level the whole story spiraled started out from.

But that didn’t happen.

Lyra was awesome through 90% of this, though. She’s a scrappy kid who grows up and uses her personality to mold her Chosen One destiny instead of the other way around. She’s nosey and brave, and when she meets Will in the second book, they balance each other out very nicely. Will is blander as a straightforward hero, but he still reveals complexity as he’s getting use to all the fantastic stuff he has to deal with after learning about it two seconds beforehand from creatures he never even imagined existed. He’s smart and good at blending in, from a lifetime of helping his mom navigate through her mental illness. 

I loved the development of the other characters, too, especially Mrs. Coulter. She’s written so the reader can almost always see through her sweetness to her real motives but the other characters can’t. Pure evil, beautiful charisma that switches sides to whatever best suits her own next move. Everyone, including her, loves Lyra a bit too instantly, but, eh, that’s how it goes in these sorts of stories and it’s the only instance in which things go easily for Lyra.

The whole “He kills God!” thing leveled at Pullman: technically, yes. He does. But God is an extremely enfeebled angel who hasn’t had any real power in a long time, who wanted to die, and who was accidentally just dissolved when the kids pull back a curtain to see him better. So it’s not violent—it’s a merciful moment. And the Church here just kind of stands in for government and is only wicked at intervals when it felt like Pullman remembered it sporadically.

Everybody’s battling for Dust, which the Church says is original sin and…other people say it’ force? I don’t know. Everybody was trying to find out, and I don’t think anybody actually did. It turns out to be a good thing, and there are elephants with wheels who need it to keep their trees alive, and Lyra and Will young-love it into abundance. I don’t know what happens to everyone else, but I assume they turn out okay.

It’s an excellent adventure story with real characters, only the metaphysical plot doesn’t support itself as well as it should. Still recommended.

These are another Book Dispensary acquisition, and as such are mine to put in my bookcase after taking them off theirs.   

Monday, September 3, 2012

"Hope" is the thing that other people steal--

Book: The Poet and the Murderer: A True Story of Literary crime and the Art of Forgery

Author: Simon Worrall

Published: 2002 (Penguin)

Pages: 265

This blog entry is brought to you by the lonely boredom that swoops down on me sometime each weekend and my attempts at combating it. I’ve shifted my volunteering at the Book Dispensary to Sunday afternoons because that’s when I’m most likely to need distraction that makes me feel useful, and helping them stem the relentless tide of genre trade paperbacks is actively soothing.

And they pay me the equivalent of $8 an hour in store book credit to do it.

So when I’m elbow-deep in James Patterson duplicates and see this book standing apart from its blood-font siblings on the true crime shelf, I don’t think twice about “buying” it, taking it home, and reading it in two large chunks over the next 18 hours or so. I’ve made a new friend.

(Aside: I’m non-snarkily starting to doubt the mental health of regularly indulging that impulse, especially considering the socially isolating aspects of it—which brings up a question of motive that is very fucking depressing: does it come from a pure place of loving to read with isolation as a consequence, or does my love of reading come from needing to fill the void I never really know what to do with?)

But for now I can counter myself with “Hey, I’m not killing people to cover millions of dollars of debt I’ve incurred from my decades of pawning off historical document forgeries.” That’d be Mark Hofmann’s job, in a knotty tale that begins with him forging documents designed to mess with the Mormon church by rewriting its history. His success and smugness about that leads him to branch out into American historical figures, get in way over his financial head, and blow up two of his creditors with homemade bombs so he doesn’t have to pay them OR fork over documents that don’t actually exist.

That doesn’t go well. He ends up in jail for life, but not before giving the author plenty of excuses to go into details about LDS mythology and modern structure, early American printing processes, handwriting, auction house procedures and corruptions, and how to build a pipe bomb.

It’s all really interesting stuff that flows well into each other, like a string of cursive that connects different letters in ways that aren’t intuitive until you see it in action. Except for the forward and afterword, the author keeps a pretty objective tone and also stays translucent about how difficult it is to know the whole truth about a guy who based his entire business and most of the rest of his life on carefully constructed lies. His only faults are tendencies to reintroduce facts that he’s already mentioned and to write an unnecessary chapter called Victims. We know, dude. You’ve shown us the careers, religions, and hobby joys that Hofman broke; they’re much more compelling to read about as that happens than in a obligatory-sounding list in paragraph form.

One of his forgeries, a “newly discovered” supposedly original poem from Emily Dickenson, gives the author an excuse to talk about the reclusive poet’s life and writing and publishing history, and those are my favorite parts. Dickinson is generally portrayed as a reclusive genius, and this book expands her life into one of combined frustration and defiance that she compacted into her writing. Maybe she was bisexual, in love with like fifty people over the course of her lifetime, embarrassed about her failing eyesight, perversely determined to rebel by keeping everything so private. She let it all out in her poems, which America has revered as an idealized example of pure artistic expression, when they finally got to see the damn things.

There’s not really a connection between Dickinson’s life and Hofmann’s except that he decided to forge her. But their brief intersection is a great jumping-off point to half a dozen related topics that all come together in one of the only true crime books where more ink than blood is spilled.