Sunday, December 29, 2013

A really nice surprise


Book: Someone

Author: Alice McDermott

Published: 2013 (Farrar, Straus, and Grioux)

Pages: 232

You guys! I was so worried about this book, so worried it was going to be so boring and so stuffed full of sentimental clichĂ©s of a sweet old lady looking fondly back on her life, and it totally wasn’t and she didn’t even bother with a framing device and just dove right in to her Brooklyn childhood and it was so full of human details and joys and sorrows of her first love and growing up and her big brother’s decline and her more gradual realization that maybe he’s gay and oh, it was such a breath of fresh writing about a very worn subject that it made the days I was reading it better.

I love when that happens. Bookshelf!
 

Fleeting humanity


Book: Stay Up With Me

Author: Tom Barbash

Published: 2013 (Ecco)

Pages: 209

These are the kind of short stories that are gently told, filled with just enough human detail but maybe not enough weight to keep them anchored in my mind. They’re all about relationships, usually romantic and/or familial, and some of them take unusual settings like the inflating of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons or regular feelings that are expressed as obsessions to sort of magnify the absurdity of the generality of sharing our lives with other people.
 

I liked them and I will bookshelf this, but I can’t say anything really stood out to me and I will probably end up re-reading this as a sort of baseline calming thing when I want to stabilize my own writing and/or dating life. People are weird.

A view from the other side


Book: Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America

Author: Terry Eagleton

Published: 2013 (W.W. Norton & Company)

Pages: 178

So I sort of fell off the “no new books until I’m done with the old” wagon. I went on another volunteer-credit-spending spree at the used bookstore, and then I went through all of the library’s New Releases posts  from April until the first week of December and made a list (in four parts of 50 each) of every book from those that I want to check out –

But hell, I figure if I only check out one library book at a time and keep the “bought” books in my car and don’t spent actual money until I am in fact done with the rest, I’ll be okay.

I’m telling you all this at the top of this book’s review because I’m procrastinating in telling you that there’s not a hell of a lot in here. It was a disappointing mishmash of vague philosophies that were both less humorous than I wanted them to be and less profound than the author meant them to be.
 

The normal gentle jabs are there: the accents, blind American optimism vs. dreary British pessimism, American tendency to let it all hang out in public vs. stifling British politeness, pride vs. self-effacement, etc. etc. Why don’t we enjoy a good teapot around here? (I do love my CVS electric kettle if that counts for anything.) Why can’t America shut up? Why can’t England stand up for itself more?

There are answers, well-sprinkled with vague irony, but none of it stirred much envy or patriotism or defensiveness or sudden understanding from me like I was hoping it would. I’m very curious about living in another country and especially the differences between countries that seem like they would naturally share and contrast a lot of small cultural details, but this book didn’t enlighten me very much.

Back to the library it goes. Crossing one off the list (of two hundred…sigh. I was doing so well for like three months there, right?).

Loosing God in the jungle


Book: Jesus Land

Author: Julia Scheeres

Published: 2005 (Counterpoint)

Pages: 355

This is a memoir of how a young (white) girl and one of her adopted (black) brothers were sent to a Christian boot camp in the Dominican Republic when they were teenagers to basically humiliate the Jesus back into them and the bad behavior out.

I put the kids’ races in parenthesis because while it’s not the central issue, it’s a very close second that affects their lives as they grow up in the Midwest. A lot of the story sets up their childhood and teen years, which is great because it shows how conflicted they were and how their militant parents took their kids’ fairly normal behavior for rebellion that had to be quashed.

Their older brother was in fact a bad kid, and although the argument could be made that he got that way from abandonment issues from his biological parents met by over-strictness from his adopted ones, I can’t have the sympathy for him that I have for the younger siblings because the older brother sexually abuses the sister for most of her teenage years.
 

When she and her younger brother start their own misbehavior, like stealth drinking and smoking and hanging out with the weirdos at first because they’re the only ones who’ll accept them but staying because they get hooked on the stuff they do, I find it really interesting that the girl makes casual mentions of still believing in God and worrying about what he thinks of all of it.

But most of that vanishes into the jungle haze when her younger brother is shipped off and she takes the chance to join him after she’s caught at some juvenile delinquency. The camp is strict and hypocritical and demeaning, and most of the kids there pretend and tattle their way through levels of responsibility and privilege until it’s decided they’re done. It’s not overly shocking, but it’s bad, but the camp never does get closed down and eventually the lady re-visits the campus as a journalist and gets no more answers than she did as an attendee.

It was a good clear read. She’s got a handle on her teenage emotions and how those extremes made the camp feel even more like a prison than it already objectively was and how her upbringing blew up her discretions into things she could barely ever make up for and how that drove her deeper into more dangerous behavior because why not when you’re already not going to be forgiven, right, and her slow realization that this wasn’t normal and that she could run away to something that was.

Bookshelf. 

 

The librarians defend the town!


Book: The Facades

Author: Eric Lundgren

Published: 2013 (Overlook Duckworth)

Pages: 215

There are two stories going on in this novel, one about an unreliable narrator trying to find his opera singer wife who disappeared on him and one about a town slowly going crazy through the buildings of its quirky founding architect. They are supposed to tie into each other, but they don’t, not nearly enough, so I’m left wondering exactly what was the point of all I just read.
 

I’m keeping this book because the librarians band together in an impromptu militant stand against the mayor who wants to tear down the town library and because of the gradual reveal of the lady’s real disappearance at the end, not because this book makes a whole lot of sense.

Bookshelf none the less.

 

Falling asleep at the gun


Book: The Little Sleep

Author: Paul Tremblay

Published: 2009 (Holt)

Pages: 268

A private eye who has narcolepsy and has to find out where compromising photos and a snuff film reel came from and in the process discovers really unsettling things about his dead and revered father. Go!
 
 

 

The narcolepsy is a good hook in theory, and it mostly works on the page except when it’s conveniently muddling the detection plot and also when the dude is whining about how much it messes up his life. Explanation is good, especially from the guy who experiences it, but holy crap, dude, we get that it sucks. Just tell us what you find.

It’s going for a sort of neo-noir and almost makes it, and it’s fun to read around the whiny bits, and I lost sense of the plot for a bit there but that might be because I don’t read a lot of detective novels so am rusty about keeping up with details. I did like the gradual reveal about his dad, though, and I appreciated that it wasn’t about a murder but was high enough stakes to maybe bring one about when discovered.

Also, pro tip to the Books a Million guy who was hovering near me when I picked this as part of an armful of bargain books to buy about a year ago: Never, ever say, “Are you going to read all those?” to me and my words. I very nearly dropped everything and walked out without buying just because you said that, because duh.

But I like this book more than the anger I felt, so I bought it and now, bookshelf.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Working together to fight The Man

Book: Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance
Author: Carla Kaplan
Published: 2013 (Harper)
Pages: 343

So you want to fight for social justice, but right along with your family and own social circle thinking you're insane and probably sexually perverted in some way you haven't admitted yet, the people you want to help consider you a condescending outsider and accuse you of using them as a way to boost your own celebrity. What the hell are you supposed to do?



The white women activists who took part in the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century went in wildly different directions all the boost the same cause: racial equality and respect for the blossoming African-American contributions to the arts. Some mostly stayed out of scandal by supporting artists while staying the hell out of the spotlight as much as they could; some dove headfirst into interracial marriages, love affairs, and tabloid headlines. Probably the most transparent but also most reviled openly expressed their longings to appropriate this "exotic" culture for themselves, i.e., wrote poems about how they wished they were black and wrote plays they claimed to be all about the black experience and wanted everybody to go back to the "childlike wonder" of black people. So still racism, only weirder. 

Not everybody hated these ladies, of course, because that's yet another aspect of grouping "us" against "them" and generalizing for a whole bigass swatch of people who may or may not have anything in common beyond their skin color, and it certainly helped boost notice to black artists when they already had the backing (and money) of at least a little corner of the Establishment. But at the same time, this was when women were also getting patted on the head with an "Oh, she wants to help people! Isn't that cute!" so this book also doubles as an account of how two groups of minority voices joined together sometimes loud enough to actually get heard. 

It's pretty great. The first part is the best because it outlines the movement and white ladies' general roles in it. The second half of the book biographies (yeah, I totally just made that a verb) four or five ladies specifically, which I liked but also wanted to hear more about. There was this one lady who wore African bangles from her wrists to her elbows because she wanted to be a...look, guys, I can't say either the proper or the slang version of the n-word. I have no rights whatsoever to that - and I don't think anybody ever settled the debate of "Is this racist?" (Although with 2013 mindset, the answer is usually, "Um. Yes.") 

Very solid research on a very obscure topic. Bookshelf!

Monday, December 2, 2013

The least surprisingly great read so far

Book: Drown
Author: Junot Diaz
Published: 1997 (Riverhead)
Pages: 208

I finally got around to reading Junot Diaz's first collection of short stories and of course it's wonderful and of course they're all interlocking and about Yunior and his childhood growing up in Jersey and the Dominican Republic and strange relatives and fighting couples and island outcasts and sort-of sometimes-asshole brothers.

Of course there's smattering of Spanish and swearing and street talk and of course life's hard and ain't too pretty and of course I love it.

It's minus the magical realism and minus a lot of the geek factor and minus a little of the higher drama of The Brief Life of Oscar Wao, but that just shows how well Diaz reveals the real nature of desperate humanity.

Yeah. Bookshelf, duh huh.


Doorways deep inside

Book: A Guide for the Perplexed
Author: Dara Horn
Published: 2013 (W.W. Norton and Company)
Pages: 336

See? It's totally possible to write a thriller that involves kidnapping, a computer genius, terrorists, and Single-White-Female-ing shenanigans without indulging in any melodramatics.

What you need: rounded characters that come to their obsessions honestly, through believable childhood traumas and rivalries that scare them into protecting what they most want out of life; a parallel that involves a religious scholar digging among ancient ephemera and document his agonizing over what to keep; have that morph into the main character's computer program that could actually work and looks very practical on the surface and then show how something that tries to be helpful can add fuel to obsessive behavior.



It's really good, you guys. It explores doorways both literal and, like, emotional, and also did you know that synagogues each have a special room where the congregation stores documents that are too worn out to use but contain the name of God so they don't throw them out? Yeah.

Bookshelf! I am on a roll with picking good books out of the pile lately. And I can totally see visible progress in the to-read pile. Sticking to it has actually been a lot easier than I thought it would be; yay, self-imposed willpower. Although I'm totally already planning my next ambush.

Hiding on the silver screen

Book: The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler
Author: Ben Urwand
Published: 2013 (Harvard University Press)
Pages: 253

Not going to lie, guys; I took the bookjacket off this so I could read it in public without getting weird looks. 



It's about how Hollywood basically complied with Nazi Germany's rules of what movies could be like so the major studios wouldn't have to lose the biggest chunk of their overseas revenue even as a second world war was gathering all its forces and such. 

Apparently Hitler loved movies, screened them all the time when that was still a pain in the ass, recorded his thoughts, and had advisers who saw their massive propaganda potential. And his skill as an orator and propagandist made him and his people super paranoid about what Germans saw on the big screen during the national socialist rise to power. But they didn't just say get rid of anything Jewish; they said get rid of anything that makes fun of Germany like this *pulls out giant list of arbitrary rules*. 

And the major studios were like, "Well, I guess, I mean, sure?" They weren't active in any propaganda but they were active in cutting their movies, sometimes to incomprehensible shreds, so they'd pass. I feel really sorry for the editors who sweated to keep their job through the Hayes Commission AND the Nazis.

There were surprisingly few protest movies and almost no Jewish characters portrayed on screen by the 1930s. But a majority of the studio executives were Jewish. Which actually had surprisingly little effect on business. 

I wish the answer was a little more complicated than, "They wanted to keep the revenue from their foreign market" and that this book was a bit more than explaining that, then listing all the changes they had to make to certain movies. I wish the photos were a little more interesting too; they are literally just headshots of people talked about. Like one movie still from King Kong. 

But it was still an interesting take on where art, commerce, and politics collide (spoiler alert: commerce usually wins). Bookshelf. 


Monday, November 18, 2013

Don't give the kid a gun

Book: Goat Mountain
Author: David Vann
Published: 2013 (HaperCollins)
Pages: 239

Holy shit, you guys. I was not prepared.

Of course I read the summary and of course it sounded intriguing so that's why I bought it but - wow. This kid is a psychopath.

Let me back up: on a hunting trip with his dad, grandpa, and family friend, they see a poacher on their land and one of them points a gun at him and the kid pulls the trigger and shoots the poacher. Blows away pretty much all of his back.



And then everybody goes crazy in their own ways, the friend's "We gotta report this" and the dad's "Oh my god you ruined our lives" being the most understandable. The grandpa wants to kill the kid, which doesn't end up amounting to much except excuses for the author to go on about the Biblical tradition/instinct of family violence. Not even allusions but straight up flat out references that don't do any more connecting to this situation so you're kind of left just hanging out going, "Yep. Cain and Abel, man..."

And although the book's written in first person from the kid's point of voice, he doesn't actually talk or think or feel much of anything. Just a lot of description. In really annoying, disconnected sentence fragments. There are teases of him alluding to the fact that he's narrating this during the modern day, years after the actual event as a grownup, but again, nothing actually comes of that.

I dunno, guys. What's there is beautifully written, but there's not really much there. I don't think I'll keep this one. 

To the event horizons and beyond

Book: A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes
Author: Stephen Hawking
Published: 1998 (Bantam)
Pages: 182

I will read about theoretical physics until I understand it, dammit, and Stephen Hawking has helped me get more of the way there. 



He explains everything from subatomic particles (quarks make up protons and neutrons and electrons, rightright, but my brain can't picture "packets of energy" - I keep thinking of Taco Bell sauce) to the Big Bang in clear language with a vague hint of humor once in awhile that maybe works better out loud but is appreciated nonetheless.

My favorite parts were about black holes and anti-matter (which apparently runs on imaginary numbers and calculus).

Hawking also outlines what he means by theories and emphasizes the testability aspect and talks about different ones in history and why they came about and how/why they've been discouraged or become popular. 

It's a great tour of astrophysics and even more remarkable when you think about how he had to write it. Bookshelf!

Locks and translations

Book: The History of Love
Author: Nicole Krauss
Published: 2005 (Penguin)
Pages: 385

Shelving and organizing romance paperbacks every weekend has made me even more tired and cynical about artistic portrayals of love and the giant-ass yawning gap between that and the real stuff. It's exhausting, and one day I will break down and read one and tell you exactly how many times my soul rolled its eyes at someone's heaving bosoms. 

But not today. Although it was sandwiched between two really cheesy-looking tomes, this book was quirky and unexpected and heartbreaking in a these-are-real-people-with-real-emotions-and-this-could-really-happen way. 

It's told in alternating voices of a retired locksmith shut-in whose carefully reconstructed life is shaken by the discovery that he's got a famous writer for a son and the son just died, and a twelve-year-old girl who's trying to find love for her shut-in mom while she tracks down the real author of the book that got her mom and dad together. (Spoiler: it's the locksmith dude, only his friend stole it and published it when he immigrated to America first.)

Both the old man and the young girl have unique voices and operate their own systems of logic that make perfect sense to them but nobody else, which leads to their discovery of one another and draws neat parallels between their situations. 

I really liked how the book's main focus wasn't on some great starry romance but on the weird hidden working love of missed connections, with side tracks but not distractions into budding adolescence and discovering the unexpected indignities of old age.

Good read that proves the people, not the actual love, are the interest parts of a love story. Bookshelf!


Sunday, November 3, 2013

In America, Communist Party complicates your life!

Book: Dissident Gardens
Author: Jonathan Lethem
Published: 2013 (Doubleday)
Pages: 366

YOU GUYS I HAVE FALLEN IN LOVE.



This story could be subtitled “How the Communist Movement Destroyed My Family’s Ability to Have Anything Close to Normal Relationships,” and it’s SO GOOD.  It’s reminded me how lit fic can the connections in our lives, twist the hell out of them, and spread it out across a couple generations for us to find disturbing patterns and how maybe, just maybe, we can make changes for the better.

Or not! This book touches on the futility of the communism ideal and how that affects kids when a mother refuses to let go and how a young girl rebels against a rebel parent and how love can fester and warp a commitment to a cause and the slow painful death of inspiration and the special humiliation of growing up different and instead of learning how to blend in you accidentally find someone who makes you incurably weirder and how that affects the rest of your life.

It’s a non-chronological story about relationships, not just love. Love is a part of it, of course, but I appreciated that it was just another outgrowth of the Party because that’s the mom’s base of affection – her love for the party comes first and that’s what she models her parental and romantic love on. It’s an impractically idealistic and pragmatic way to love, and it warps whoever comes in contact with it in all kinds of interesting ways.


I liked the mix of political and personal, which made me read it slower than usual to digest all the allusions and connections and connotations. A good story with its gaze trained firmly above the navel. Bookshelf!  

Planning yet more bookish things

Book: Mentors, Muses, and Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives
Editor: Elizabeth Benedict
Published: 2009 (Free Press)
Pages: 268

I got a hell of a lot of future reading list ideas and also more dream fuel for my MFA plans from this, but not as much inspiration as any of these contributing authors got from the people or books they talk about here.

It’s a great idea. I kind of doubt the editor’s assertion that she couldn’t find ANY book on authors’ inspirations on Amazon when she was doing research for this (really? NONE? IN 2009?), but I love reading what makes writers tick and where they get stuff from because I know firsthand how different the voodoo is for each person.

But these essays did start sounding the same after awhile. The best ones where when writers talked about formative experiences (apparently you can be a waiter at one writing retreat and they let you read your stuff and write and take classes while you’re there too) instead of actual people as mentors. Of course all the mentors are going to be supportive and maybe outwardly crusty and terrifying but they all have the familiar – and similar – squishy guiding light center that all good teachers share.

Not that those mentors deserve all the praise they can get. This one’s staying on the booktruck bookshelf for the afore mentioned booklist growth, mostly, but also, I did like reading it from a pure lit geek point of view. I don’t know if any genre writer or journalist or screenwriter would find much here, though, and I think that’s why the stories smooth together like they do. Anyway, I like it in maybe a more specific way than it was meant, so it’s staying. 


Not the revolution you might think

Book: The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution
Editor: John Brockman
Published: 1995 (Touchstone)
Pages: 388

Don’t trust the copy on the back of the book to accurately represent the content, is the lesson here, although it’s dwarfed by lots of mini-lessons on evolution, the philosophy of life, artificial intelligence verses artificial life, and what other scientists think of these theories.

It’s a collection of interviews of preeminent scientists in these fields, not so much a comparison of scientific thought to artistic thought like I expected. Although the scientists have been chosen because their theories involve more imagination, they don’t really talk explicitly about it.



In the intro, the editor talks about how he put the pieces together, and I really wish he had left in the questions he asked, because each essay is constructed like the scientist said/wrote it from their perspective, so I want to see the questions to see where it’s all coming from. Also, the comments by other scientists at the end of each essay were kind of useless and occasionally catty. They didn’t add much – any controversy worth mentioning was already touched on in the main essay.

But oh man. I learned so much about what, like, Richard Dawkins actually thinks about evolution, and how artificial life and artificial intelligence are different  (artificial life is actually much more difficult to simulate because it’s trying to make machines go through biological processes that we don’t fully understand yet, but intelligence is more mechanical), and how different people define consciousness.


All the essays were fascinating insights into stuff I don’t know enough about, so I enjoyed this book. It took me awhile to get through because each essay was pretty dense, but it was worth it and will be going onto the bookcart bookshelf and staying there.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A vow and a review

Book: Tinderbox
Author: Lisa Gornick
Published: 2013 (Sarah Crichton Books)
Pages: 299

I am weak. I am a weak, weak bibliophile with too much access to the library’s New Arrivals blog posts and too much fun money left on my old debit card and too much time on my lunch break to avoid going on an Amazon book ordering spree of I’m not even going to tell you it’s embarrassing.

But! No more. I am taking a vow. A VOW, DAMMIT. The next South Carolina Book Festival is May 16 – 18, 2014. It's an excellent time of year to hunker down into personal writing and media-consuming projects, and I promise I won’t buy or library-borrow another volume until I am done with all of these by the first writing class that I never get to go to at the book festival because why are they all on Friday at times when I’m still in work and/or cost $35 extra?

Point being, this is a new addition to the pile, and it was pretty good. It’s ostensibly about this “crazy” refuge a lady takes in as a maid when her son and grandson and daughter-in-law come to live with her and wrecks their shit up. But really, those quotes are very well earned because the maid doesn’t seem crazy like, at all. She spontaneously talks about her bad childhood to the lady – who is a psychiatrist. She acts aloof to the son – when she finds his porn stash. Well, duh. Those seem like natural reactions to me. And those are cited as the biggest examples and are supposed to be the whole reason why she sets their house on fire. Yeah.
I think the problem is we get into everybody’s head except hers, and she’s the one that’s supposed to be the most volatile. The family is much more interesting, with the son who’s increasingly obsessed with his porn stash until it finally drives him to disastrous distraction from his kid, the daughter-in-law who fled her country intending to come back and make a difference but instead found herself tangled in feelings she can’t undo, the daughter who seems to love everyone and food better than herself (…I know, but it’s written way more nuanced than that, at least until she grieves herself skinny and finds her happy ending that they linger on just a touch too long).




The whole tinderbox metaphor is jammed in there too forcefully, too, but like I said, the family’s pretty interesting, and…sigh, I don’t know. It’s hard to admit defeat with a brand-new full-priced book. Maybe this time, though. Maybe.   

Exploring moods

Book: An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness
Author: Kay Redfield Jamison
Published: 1995 (Vintage)
Pages: 219

The thing about reading books on mental illnesses is that they all tend to get into the same groups of rhythms, which makes complete sense since that’s how you diagnose them in the first place – by recognizing a pattern of symptoms.

That doesn’t take away from each individual’s personal experience, but it does make sort of repetitive reading from all but the most nuanced writers, and Jamison very nearly qualifies for two reasons: she studies manic-depression, so she has like a whole extra dimension of expression that she can use, and she’s a poet, so she tends to pick the elegant stuff.

Hers is still an arc familiar enough to maybe be labeled a  trope by now: denial, ruin, discovery, recovery, relapse, repeat, finally catch. I mean I’m still really psyched for her, though, because no matter how many times I read the same general things about it, manic-depression sounds like absolute devastation.


I’m keeping this on my bookshelf because I don’t have a memoir of moods and madness yet unless you count the half-dozen books on writing and writers. 


MEAT BULLET (spoiler)

Book: A Death in Vienna
Author: Frank Tallis
Published: 2007 (Random House)
Page: 471

You know what I hate? When books set in the past have famous people either as minor characters or mentioned by the main (fictional) characters as a way of proving said fictional characters as ahead of their time. Like, “Oh, that Sigmund Freud, I bet one day the whole world will…” you get it. Then the stodgy old detective can be all, “Preposterous!” and prove that authority figures aren’t always right and in fact usually have their pipes stuck up their asses with having any character aspects of their own that actually proves it.

But that’s cheating! And you get that in this detective novel (I KNOW it’s been since like MIDDLE SCHOOL when we all used to eat Agatha Christie for lunch), but eh, sparingly enough to ignore for the larger mystery of who got the psychic lady pregnant and then killed her. Spoiler: I, uh, don’t remember. It was one of the dudes who went to her regular readings.

And okay but I do remember that they couldn’t find the bullet, and someone said it could’ve been made of ice, and I was all, “OH Y’ALL ARE GOING THERE, HUH?” but then they didn’t. Because it turns out the bullet was made of meat that just decayed with the rest of her. OF MEAT.



I was more focused on how this new-fangled Freud-follower was bugging his detective friend into figuring stuff out, and then getting confused himself over whether he really loved his new fiancé or not and what was the deal with his lady patient who was hysterical from getting raped at her old maid job but now that she was cured was studying blood and dude, he so had the hots for her BUT IT ENDED ON A SEX CLIFFHANGER. Or at least as much as one as a Victorian-set detective novel can.


What makes me want to keep the book is the nonfiction postscript about Freud and detective fiction because apparently he had a big influence over it and how forensic science was first portrayed. Apparently psychoanalysis was a precursor to physical forensics. Huh. Cool. So, bookshelf!

We've still got a long way to go, baby

Book: Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media
Author: Susan J. Douglas
Published: 1994 (Three Rivers Press)
Pages: 307

Oh man, you guys, this book had me humming the Shirelles for like a week, because it captures that fun  spirit of popular culture while dissecting it in a thorough, evenhanded, but personal way. It was just so damn catchy. “The mass media objectifies women” is so familiar that everyone can hum along, but do you really know what it means?

Well, probably, and if you’ve taken women’s or media sociology courses, you’ve written a few dozen papers on it, but Douglas lived it. She came of age right along with mass media and the women’s movement, grew up watching both collide and warp and try to evolve, and she’s got some nifty details that flesh out just exactly how many contradictions were bombarding women at a pace that got faster every time she changed the channel.



I especially loved her discussions of girl group pop and domestic-based sitcoms. On the surface, the music seems pretty modern, right, with girls singing about love and sex just as frankly as the fellas. But it’s still ultimately “pretty” music, steeped in lush orchestration and devoid of the really raw sounds of rock ‘n roll.

And then most of the sitcoms portray ladies who, okay, so they’re mostly housewives with the occasional Mary Tyler Moore thrown in. But they’re at least portrayed as being smarter than their husbands and thus secretly running everything, right? Well. Kind of, except they had to be granted impossible, other-worldly powers (Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie) before they could be allowed to be seen as that powerful, or if they do have a job, be treated the same way by their male boss.

It was these little details and how they affected Douglas as a girl and how she brought this into a whole bigger picture that still is screwing us over today that made this an easy, fun read even when it was delving into exactly what needs to be changed about the portrayal of women. (A lot.) Bookshelf! But only after I lend it to a lady who makes cheesecakes and used to be a sports journalist.     


Thursday, October 10, 2013

The socioeconomics of looking after the children


Book: The Nanny Diaries

Authors: Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

Published: 2002 (St. Martins)

Pages: 306

Yes, rich people are ridiculous. Yes, they spend way too much time thinking about their kids instead of being with them. Yes, they are superficial and if you take care of their offspring, you will get the brunt of their crazy, not enough pay, way too many emergency hours, and no thanks whatsoever.

But their children are usually still adorable, and if you can keep your own romance as a side plot and not the end-all be-all of your story, you’ll have a novel that far exceeds my expectations and puts a very big heart into satire that never goes cartoony. Bookshelf!
 

Not quite measuring up


Book: Nine Inches: Stories
Author: Tom Perrotta
Published: 2013

Here’s the thing: Perrotta writes like he’s tapping into this shared American consciousness, but he doesn’t tap – deep? Hard? I refuse to keep the penis jokes to a minimum on this blog – enough to get the depth of details he needs to make his characters or situations feel organic.

As it is, his high school slackers and overachievers and stressed-out parents and lonely teachers are just a couple finer strokes away from the finishing touches that would take them out of their arctypes.

Arctypes work for comics, genre fiction, or other media that depend on something other than character (visuals, plot, setting) to do 51% of more of the heavy lifting. But you can’t get away with that in realism literary fiction.

Having lectured, let me tell you how fun and poignant the title story is here: very. I went back to middle school dances and all the absurdity and importance and hormones through a teacher who’s experiencing all of it through his not-quite-unrequited crush on the art teacher and having to break apart a moony couple over a dumb rule he doesn’t want to enforce. That was great and made me tear up.
 

But everything else was surface level that took itself too seriously. Back to the library it goes.

Sweet, sweet research


Book: Candy Freak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America

Author: Steve Almond

Published: 2004 (Algonquin)

Pages: 261

This has the heft and layout of one of those novelty books stacked near Barnes and Noble cash registers, but it’s so much more in depth up front about that author’s obsession with candy.

He tours a lot of the smaller U.S. candy factories, as Mars and Hershey wouldn’t even pretend that they’d give him inside information, but he saw a lot of general processes. And got a lot of free samples. These parts were like watching those videos that the mailman brought on Mr. Rogers, only a little giddier and editorialized with heavier emphasis on chocolate bars simply because those are the author’s favorite.

He explores his own obsession, too, which is basically that his dad expressed fatherly love through candy. Although the author wonders about the true health of that, he backs off from a path of existentialism that is starts to lead him down a couple times (“Is this why I can’t keep a real relationship…? Ooh, a new flavor of Twix.”) Which I appreciated, because I read the whole thing over the course of a disconcerting Sunday that needed no more overthinking, especially about relationships.

But one thing I did enjoy was when he talked to fellow freaks, the ones that had written books and started empires. Although the guy who had a massive collection spanning decades and a couple hundred thousand dollars had nothing polysyllabic to say about it. The author kept in all the journalism awkwardness of trying to get a good answer, which was a funny look behind his curtain and a sort of terrifying look behind the old man’s because apparently he did all that for basically no reason. It could’ve been beer cans.

Tasty stuff, so it stays on the shiny new book cart.
 

 

Bravo!


Book: An Evening Performance: New and Selected Stories

Author: George Garrett

Published: 1985 (Penguin)

Pages: 518

Where has this guy been hiding? Seriously, this book from the bargain bin of a used book store is the first time I’ve heard of him and it’s got like 100 short stories that are all at least good with quite a few that are transcendent.

He does best when pitting weirdos against a collected group (small town, usually) and they expect different things or levels of fulfillment. He also does really well with military stories, using false bravado to show the absurdity of war by exposing the gap between what a soldier does and how he feels about it and how he shows that.
 

The one place he stumbles is in the domestic sphere. Those stories feel like he’s trying to shoehorn too much meaning into too slight themes, and that makes it go melodramatic.

So but all of it’s worth reading. Bookshelf!

 

After...what?


Book: Afterwards

Author: Rachel Seiffert

Published: 2007 (Pantheon)

Pages: 327

The most boring part of this story is the central romance that comes together as a sort of “meh, why not” and floats away because of much more interesting traumas. Not that either side knows about these actually interesting traumas, just that there’s something the other’s not saying. Boo fucking hoo, y’all.
 

But the guy was a British solider deployed to fight the IRA with a rage problem that’s mostly under control except when he lashed out and killed a man on his last patrol, and the girl has a weirdly close relationship with her grandfather for how much she resents him and his own military participation in the colonialism of Kenya.

I liked reading about those two bits, and they were spread out nice and gradually among the modern day piffles, so I think I still want to keep this, but it’ll be on the first to-weed list when I run out of room (again).

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Eight volumes in the life of an icon


Books: Buddha, volumes 1 – 8
Author and artist: Osamu Tezuka
Published: 2003 – 2005 translation from Vertical (mirrored artwork, so it reads left to right)
Page: Oh geez. I forgot to write that down. They average about 350 a volume, so, that times eight is 2,800. Ish.

Here’s where I’m coming from with Tezuka: I already know he’s awesome, thanks to my now-ex-boyfriend-but-still-book-friend’s research and enthusiasm and willingness to lend reading material, and I’ve wanted to read Buddha for a longass time but have only just found all eight volumes sitting on one library shelf.
 

And boy howdy I’m glad I got them all at once (“There’s a lady out here with a bunch of books…”) because I burned through them like the fire that’s always cropping up and burning villages to the ground and making orphans and vigilantes of everybody.

The storyline rests on the solidifying backbone of Prince Siddhartha, his quest to outsmart his fear of death, his enlightenment, and his spreading said enlightenment. It’s profound and spiritual without being overtly religious, and Tezuka’s so good at showing Siddhartha’s humanity in the lines of his face when he’s trying to stay stoic and his outburst of doubt and pain as he grows into his role.

What struck me most was the motif of sacrifice. Like, a rabbit throws itself into a fire so a starving monk can eat kind of sacrifice. Within the first ten pages. Life is short and brutal so why not make it count for more in the end, right? We’re all connected, and while that freaks me out a little for reasons I don’t really want to poke at, it provides an elegant flow to the life cycle and why (some) things happen.

This is heavy stuff, so I’m going to take a list to appreciate some of the ways Tezuka reminds us to not take everything so seriously:

·         Young Tatta is totally Astroboy. Right? Then as he grows up, Tezuka gives him this great galumphing walk and bloodthirsty vengeance that Buddha manages to tamp down, sort of, until the ink spray of Tatta’s violent arrow death.

·         Everything is so cyclic that more than once I thought about saying out loud to these books, “Can’t you people learn?” but then Buddha does that, and those are his best moments of humanity because he’s trying to enlighten you people, dammit.

·         Anytime anything ridiculous comes up, an explosion of Tezuka pig doodles burst into a panel to let you know. I think real life should have that sort of notation.

·         Is going topless just a thing in India, or was it in Buddha’s time? If so, that historical detail is recorded very thoroughly.

·         And on the topic of being completely superficial, why did Buddha’s hair become, like, I don’t know, is that stone? And why did his ears start drooping down? There wasn’t any mention of it except the visual, and it was too different for the explanation to be “well, he done got old.”

This is a good epic with lively artwork, engrossing scenery, interesting characters, and themes that tackle no less than humanity’s own place in the cosmos. Go read it.

Monday, September 16, 2013

How pottery tells us how much we don't actually know

Book: A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid
Author: John Romer
Published: 2013 (Penguin)
Pages: 395 (not counting end notes)

Not going to lie here, y’all – you need to be already interested in ancient Egypt before you start this book. Otherwise it’ll be hard going. There’s a lot of pottery to sift through.

But that’s the good part; Romer is excellent at talking about what those pottery shards mean and how they, along with other stuff that you might recognize from conventional Egyptology tropes, piece together a very faint picture of an empire everybody thought they knew.

This ain’t your grandma’s ancient Egypt, though. He dissects the modern, Western lens through which we’ve all been trained to look at the pyramids and archaeological finds and basically says that, look, we really have no idea what these mean, and what we’ve been using as facts are actually pretty bad guesses, so here are some better ones that come with giant caveats all meaning DUDES, WE WEREN’T THERE.

I want Romer to do this sort of check on like all known knowledge, just to make sure. He seems really good at it, and his writing is academic but not overly so. And this is just the first motherfucking volume, with another one to come, and I can only hope that he wrote all at one time and split them up because otherwise he’s probably sweating over a laptop with a doomsday clock ticking down on his wall right this second. I don’t wish hard deadlines on anyone, especially dudes who look like Elaine’s dad from Seinfeld and live in Italy (check the bio, yo).

This is a library book (picked fresh from the liberry tree!), so it’s going back, and I don’t think I’ll put it on my to-order list. It was good, I enjoyed reading it, but it took several breaks for lighter fair and never really felt fun enough for a re-read. I may or may not check out volume 2. We’ll see.



I feel like I have to put a disclaimer somewhere that I am not actually a librarian. I work in HR at a library, which is still awesome, and I plan on getting my MLIS eventually, and I can help you look something up on our online catalogue but…not a librarian. I mention this because I tried to distinguish it during a drunken discussion while watching a football game with people on Saturday, and I fear that was the worst possible scenario to get my point across.

But I’ll totally answer to librarian. Miss Bookstacks if you’re nasty, heh.