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 clich├ęs, 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.