Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Library road trip

Book: The Borrower

Author: Rebecca Makkai

Published: 2011 (Viking)

I like this book for very selfish reasons--namely, I completely understand the main character's mid-twenties aimlessness and love/hate relationship with her first-out-of-college job. I am living that right now. Also, I would totally go over to her apartment to listen to the plays and rehearsals in the theater below with her while reading or drinking or both. It sounds like a good plan to make us both less lonely.

But you know what's not such a good plan? Letting a bright, spastic kid from a strict, possibly abusive family trick her into quasi-kidnapping him for a road trip after she finds him hiding in the library where she runs the children's room. 

Her impulse is all good intentions. She wants to help him get away from a crushing home life so he can figure out who he is, and maybe in this stealthy heroic gesture she'll find out enough about herself so she can finally start actually living. She already has to find creative ways to smuggle him Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. She's got Russian revolutionary blood and mob ties from her dad. Full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, etc, etc. 

But half of her starts off really freaked out and only gets worse as the kid blackmails her into taking him across state lines on a quest to see his grandma. By the time they find the grandma in a Revolutionary War-era Vermont grave, the fuck-yeah-rescue and oh-fuck-kidnapping parts of her brain are so incredibly heightened that...

...she avoids all consequences of said kidnapping by letting one of her dad's guys take the kid home on a Greyhound bus and never going back to her hometown again. She never sees the poor kid again. He probably had to go through the punishment version of the anti-gay camp his parents had him in and from which he was running away. She doesn't know. She thinks about him a lot and wants such a better future for him so hard, but it's even harder to believe her when she ran away to bury herself in an academic library instead of going back and maybe, I don't know, fighting for the little guy. 

I'm not judging her on real-life heroics, because fuck knows what she could've been charged with before she would've had a chance to explain herself and what would've stuck anyway, but it would've been so much more affecting and still totally logical for her to go back and face up what she (they) did.  

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Why does she care?

Book: Alys, Always

Author: Harriet Lane

Published: Scribner 2012

Pages: 209

OH MY GOD this book was the most frustrating thing I've read in a really long time. Want to know why? Of course you do.

But reason does not come into this. That's exactly my problem. THERE IS NO REASON FOR ANY OF THIS BOOK TO HAPPEN BEYOND THE FIRST CHAPTER-Y SECTION THING.

Basic story: mousey book section writer comes across a car accident in which the wife of a famous author dies. After she gives statements to the police and etc, the family wants to meet her for closure. Okay. So far so good.

But then she starts hanging out with the daughter and eventually seducing the father AND WHY? She never says. Never, ever. Not one speck of "seeing all this wealthy wealth dazzled the bejesus out of me. I must have it!" No "this kid is so spoiled I should totally knock her down a peg and maybe steal some money/power." No "hot dad is hot and powerful and will help my career." That does happen and apparently she wanted it all along, but she's such a blank that there is literally no motivation for any of these events.

NOTHING. She is nothing and says nothing about wanting any of these things that apparently she does want and by the end she's just a wealthier version of a blank slate.

Why does she care? I DON'T KNOW. Then WHY THE HELL SHOULD I CARE? Because I don't. At all. The end.

Extra, extra, ambition trumps revolution

Book: The New Republic

Author: Lionel Shriver

Published: 2012 (HarperCollins)

Pages: 369

Let's talk about motivation. Specifically, what motivates a lawyer to chuck it and become a journalist?

According to Lionel Shriver, it's a lifelong yearning to get out of perpetual second place. It's an urge to get in the middle of things, to be the person everyone else goes to and values for once. It's a way to be a front-runner instead of part of the pack. Edgar's been trying to pull into first place since high school, and when he gets a foreign correspondent spot on a national newspaper, he finally feels vindicated.

Of course, he only got that spot because of a good word from the golden boy high school friend Edgar's always trying to outrun. And he only gets the job because the revered, literally larger than life journalist who started the stringer has disappeared. Edgar's hired to find him and maybe write a little about what's going on around there while he's at it in the middle of a revolution.

When he gets there, he eventually, through many, many struggles with himself and the absent journalist's legacy, discovers the old guy's secret and starts using it for his own gain. Edgar has enough morals sketched out to plausibly battle his personal ambition (SO MUCH ambition, guys) to do the right thing. Which he does, eventually, but not before exploiting the old guy's ways until he accidentally kills someone.

This is one of Shriver's more balanced story lines; unusual with quasi-metaphysical touches and characters impossible to mistake for "normal," but still thoroughly imaginable. When the group of foreign correspondents get together at their watering hole and argue about the true nature of terrorism, their dialogue gets a little lecture-y (oh gee, I wonder what Shriver feels about the efficiency of terrorists blowing up their own homeland...), but that doesn't come close to taking up significant space.

The whole thing is deep and nuanced and saved from sinking in its own gravitas by its wicked sense of humor. I feel like that could describe all of Shriver's fiction.

And it's worth noting that she wrote this in about 1998, but her publisher is just now putting it out. All of the newspaper business is a throwback to the days of influential physical print.

Monday, July 16, 2012

On a broken holiday together

Book: The Red House

Author: Mark Haddon

Published: 2012 (Doubleday)

Pages: 264

A British extended family full of secrets and people who don't especially like each other go on holiday together and oh boy, do things get out.

Like one of the dads is having an affair, one of the teenage girls is gay, the other teenage girl bullied a friend into attempting suicide, one of the mothers is haunted by her stillborn child on that kid's eighteenth birthday, the other dad had a marginal influence in accidentally paralyzing one of his patients, the teenage boy fancies his teenage girl cousin and then her mom. Typical stuff in a family drama.

But it's the little details, like how the dad's affair isn't any better than his regular life and how he's slowly realizing that, and how the teenage girl grows to realize she's gay and how she's been pushing that part of her down because she joined a church and was scared her new friends wouldn't approve, and how the teenage boy's lust jumps so easily from his step-cousin to his step-aunt when the first sharply rejects him, that ties this story together. 

It's sort of the opposite of How It All Began; here, everyone hurtles together from the edges of each other's lives into a holiday labeled "restful" which they all figure is just code for "we have to be bored around each other" and set up defenses accordingly. 

The defenses, of course, don't last the whole week. They're knocked down by each other through impulsive acts and immediately regretted revelations, and while there's not a giant happy hug and singalong at the end (thank fuck for that), whether they want to or not they all understand each other better as people by the time they part. 

Multiple perspectives stay in third-person, which is a relief because especially at the beginning they're a little hard to juggle, and descriptions (of landscapes especially) are staccato. Keeps the emphasis on what's happening in everybody's heads, which is always the most interesting bit.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Roaming the dial

Book: Radio On: A Listener's Diary

Author: Sarah Vowell

Published: 1996 (St. Martin's Griffin)

Pages: 228

This is exactly like reading a smart person's real diary, in that it's repetitive, sporadically brilliant, half-assedly organized, deeply personal, well-written with highly crafted opinions, and, an ultimately aimless record of what was going on inside the writer's head for a fixed period of time.

Things I Know for Sure About Sarah Vowell's Relationship to Radio After Reading This Book:

  1. She hates Rush Limbaugh because he says awful things and has way too many listeners who worship him for it.
  2. She hates NPR because it's boring.
  3. She loves Nirvana, Hole, and Hank Williams.
  4. She has a good grasp on why she likes this music.
Things I Suspect But Never Confirmed Because They Lurked In the Details But I Tried to Pay Attention Because They Seemed Important for Context Of Which There Was Precious Little
  1. She lives in Chicago.
  2. She teaches art. In a museum? Or used to work in a museum?
  3. She worked in college radio and gained swank connections through that because she's able to talk to radio people and go right into their studios without any explanations (to the reader at least).
  4. She visited these radio people to get more perspective for her book and to sub for shows--still at the college station?--but not to actually, like, ask them anything about their jobs and how that relates to what she's writing.
Things I Wanted to Know But She Never Tells Me
  1. How did she come up with the idea for this book?
  2. What was her recording methodology?
  3. Why did she sometimes write about music magazines or tapes she listened to without tying them back to their/her relationship with radio?
  4. What would she think about the satellite and Internet streaming radio and podcasts that have exploded since she published this?
  5. Wait--so, she's traveling again now? 
  6. Why did she do this? Seriously, I'd love to know because I get the feeling the reason would be fascinating in an idealized early-twenties social adventure kind of way. I love reading about those; I need road trip ideas! And I also need context to figure out what she's trying to say. I bet it's really cool but I just don't know because she's not telling. 

But how did it all end?

Book: How It All Began

Author: Penelope Lively

Published: 2011 (Viking)

Pages: 229

In the first couple sentences, an old lady is robbed. In the next three or four chapters, this robbery and her subsequent broken hip shift pre-established events and schedules so that her married daughter falls in love with one of the old lady's reading students, the old lady's employer's niece meets a guy who swindles her out of business, and the niece's lover is outed as an adulterer. 

Promising start! None of the coincidences are contrived, although an unnamed narrative pops up to harp on them three or for times. So then what happened?

Uh, well, you know. Life. Things. 

The employer's sections were the most fun because he was a gone-to-seed academic historian who had no idea of the giant gap between his grand ideas and their banal actualities. The rest of the affected people, most especially his niece, were refreshingly practical about their situations, which got me to like them but did not result in an ending that tied everyone together again. I was half-hoping and half-dreading that kind of ending but figured the rest of the book had enough sense to do it well. 

But I never got to find out, because everybody just drifted apart. In a coda that was completely unnecessary seeing as how we were told he never affected the story ever again, the author tells us that the mugger was shortly robbed himself.  

Well all right then. 

Books of a feather

Book: Guardians of Ga'Hoole Book One: The Capture

Author: Kathryn Lasky

Published: 2003 (scholastic)

Pages: 219

Owls! I love owls. I like nighttime better than daylight (although my sleep schedule is convinced otherwise), I've always wanted to fly, and their paradoxical combination of cute and fierce is what I strive for when I bare my fangs before brushing my hair in the mornings.

So this book's combination of adventure story and owl education kept me amused. Great choice to narrate through a young owl (although the name "Soren" will forever conjure up Cracked.com for me, so I was giggling about remembered dick jokes and history lessons all through a children's book). That way the owl life-cycle and different species could be explained through organic discovery processes. 

Which doesn't mean that was a seamless segue all the time, but even when clumsily dropped into exposition, the educational bits were interesting. The adventure story was a typical hero's quest, but--guys, these were baby owls who got kidnapped by a cult that used the moon to brainwash them into--what? I don't know. They elude the moon-washing and escape to go find this mythic tree. I also don't know what that's like because there are fourteen more books in this series and I guess they'll stretch it out. 

I will not be stretching with them, but only because I have other books to tend to first. In the meantime, I will continue to watch this YouTube video for an owl fix:


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Growing up with help from words

This pile of books is all about growing up in some form or another, and I burned through them because I'm clinging to that topic like a five-year-old to their teddy bear since life keeps reminding me that I have no idea what I'm doing. Perhaps these guys do.

Book: Lizz Free or Die
Author: Lizz Winstead
Publication: 2012 (Riverhead Books)
Pages: 302

Lizz Winstead definitely does. She created the Daily Show and ran it for a couple pre-Jon Stewart years, but that's your typical 18-hour we-became-a-family-with-FCC-fines TV writing experience. The really interesting bits are how she got there, and really good part is that she actually answers that in a satisfactory fashion: she worked her ass off at a day job and comedy clubs and writing in a giant armchair until she made herself known. She also talks about her family, my favorite quote from the whole book being her dad saying, "I raised you to have an opinion. I just thought it'd be mine." HA! 
She's more straightforward and less joke-a-minute, which makes some parts less funny and a little bit more sincere than maybe they could've/should've been, but on the whole it's a great non-cheesy yet still inspirational collection of ways how a wiseass lady made all her hard work pay off.
Plus this happened as proof that Liberry Tom is awesome:


Book: I Was Told There'd Be Cake
Author: Sloane Crosley
Publication: 2008 (Riverhead Books)
Pages: 228

Sloane Crosley's also a good, aspirational essay read. She's young enough to inspire envy by her publication history but frank enough about exploiting her own faults and later insight (like when she as a Jewish kid went to borderline-Bible camp and neither she nor her parents realized it until years later). Her subjects are typical (dating, life in NYC, career, religion) but with specific, neurotic twists (a plastic pony collection, baking her first and terrible boss a cookie in the shape of her head, her parents' extreme fear of indoor fires and insistence on having Christmas as well as Hanukkah) that shows she knows how funny details are. She knows that life is weird and unfair and sometimes we just have to embrace the absurdity to get through it. And she's there to record how it goes down.

Book: Such a Pretty Fat
Author: Jen Lancaster
Publication: 2008 (New American Library)

Jen Lancaster, on the other hand, does not go down without a fight once she figures out what she wants to change about herself. Her memoir is about her quest to get past her own ego enough to get in shape for health reasons. I love that she's the exact opposite of every other dieting memoir in the fact that she starts from a place of self-love instead of hate. She's quick-witted but in way that's predictable if you've been paying attention to pop culture for the past six or seven years. Her lack of motivation is understandable but starts to sound ridiculous and whiny when you realize that she's getting paid to do all this and record it in a sort of meta-diary. 
She also stages conversations for exposition. I can tell, what with the block of text and the eerily specific questions her friends pointedly ask her at weird times. It was like seeing an obvious body double for Chantum Tatum (did I spell that right? Probably not; I don't care because he's not nerdy or British) in Magic Mike when he did the serious break dancing: I see what you did there and it's a little stilted but okay fine, it gives the general idea. 

Book: 20 Something Essays by 20 Something Writers
Authors: various
Publication: 2005 (Random House)

All the writers in here wish they could have Lancaster's job. They're all struggling, mostly with careers and why any of us are here in the first place, and they're all eloquent about it. I liked the one about the soldier who starts a mustache-growing contest with his fellow recruit to distract them while they're in Kuwait. I liked them all, but that was my favorite. The one about a new dad working a late-night Wendy's shift was good too but not any better, and it bothered me that there was an editor's note claiming how in love they fell with that one and why that one won the prize. Maybe that just speaks to the excellent level of overall quality in here. 

I enjoyed these, but now I think I'm going to jump ship from reality literature for the next couple offerings. These were almost too real.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Who constants the reader?

Book: Watchmen

Writer: Alan Moore

Illustrator: Dave Gibbons

Published: 2008 (collection; DC)

You guys, this is totally a gateway drug.

It’s a first taste of humans who decide to become superheroes because of their principles and not because they have powers. It’s a first look at how corruption erodes even the best of intentions, how disillusionment leads to fast decay, how maybe the world is just too far gone to be worth saving anymore. It’s a first insight into how humans struggle so mightily to do the right thing only to see it crumpled under the weight of suspicion and nuclear war.

I like Rorschach’s absolute commitment to justice. It’s his kind of psychopathic slavery to black and white right and wrong that highlights how fluid justice actually is. I like Dr. Manhattan’s gradual detachment from the world, I like that the new Nite Owl has a bit of a gut, I like the Comedian’s explosively disillusioned reaction to Vietnam as a shaper of his general world view, and I loved the parallel to the real world in the pirate story the kid at the newsstand was reading.

SPOILER ALERT: I love Veidt's reasoning. Let’s blow up something so everybody gets too scared to fight anymore and bonds together! It reminds me of when the Emperor in Star Wars outlines his plan to take over the Galactic senate in some violent way and then goes, “And then we shall have peace” making the creepiest face to ever go along with that sentiment. But Veidt really does believe he’ll bring peace with war, and it’s such a fatal flaw in a guy who’s convinced himself and everyone else that he’s perfect and therefore assumes the weight of making the ultimate decision for mankind, like a parent who doesn’t trust a child to understand the “lesser of two evils” concept. Brilliant dissection of how much sacrifice is worth saving the remainder of the world.

I didn’t like Lorie. She was whiny. But even she stood up for herself.    

This is my favorite example of how comics and graphic novels tie words and pictures so closely together. It’s absolutely uncanny how closely Gibbons reflects not only Moore’s words but the irony, cynicism, and double meanings of them. I’d love to sit in on one of their work sessions to see how they bring everything together so freakin’ well.


Moore gets progressively weirder from here, sometimes with Gibbons in tow again. As far as I remember, V for Vendetta has the same tone and saving-a-corrupt-humanity-from-itself-with-terroristic-measures plot and the same lack of interspecies sex scenes, so that’d be a Recommended Next if you’re looking to ease into Moore and get away from superheroes.