Friday, April 26, 2013

The least Orthodox shiva you will ever sit

Book: This Is Where I Leave You
Author: Jonathan Tropper
Published: 2010 (Plume)
Pages: 339

Dysfunctional family lit fic could use less stylistic frills. I didn’t know that until I read this book. It’s about a guy who catches his wife cheating on him with his boss and then has to go sit shiva with his non-Jewish family because his dad died and wanted them to (except it turns out it's his sexpot therapist mom who says he wanted that so she could bring the family together).

There’s nothing unusual here except how real all the discord feels without going into depressingly sharp focus a la Jonathan Franzen or fuzzing everything over with sentimentality. Without getting metaphoric or Hallmark-card obvious, Tropper makes good arguments several times a chapter about why family should have to earn its bonds and how it’s both easier and way harder for them to do that with each other than with the outside world.

He also details how it feels to jam a birthday cake with lit candles up his cuckold’s ass and how shiva chairs are lowered to get the mourners closer to the ground while giving the absolute worst views of their visitors sitting in normal chairs, so, you know, he got his fun in there too.
But it’s not all about perspective, and thank fuck for that, because real people feel real things and get hurt and deal with it in weird ways and Tropper’s right there to show how they normalize it into a straightforward but deep account of dealing with about seven different kinds of loss all anchored to this big one.


Marine life in the desert

Book: Jarhead
Author: Anthony Swofford
Published: 2003 (Scribner)
Pages: 363

We had to read part of this in freshman English, the part where all the marines are showing off for a visiting reporter by playing touch football and eventually pretend gang-raping in their full desert protection suits. That’s a good place to start, because it shows the aggression and fear and hysteria and bravado and sand and grit and hostility that all these marines carried with them through basic training to Desert Storm.

Swofford’s a good writer. He’s eloquent, good at distinguishing everyday events that have underlying psychological terrors versus ones that are just a pain in the ass. He stands a little bit apart from the rest of the troop, not any more educated really but more inclined to introspection, but he understands and shares their compulsions. He goes a little crazy, too.

I liked going along with him as he tried to figure out what all this meant to him. He never really wanted it but it was all he had, and that gets his cynicism going wonky when he could really stand to just shut it up until he got this goddamn war over with.

He was probably the best normal guy to chronicle this sort of thing exactly because he wasn’t truly a “normal” guy in the marines but he wanted to be so badly until the absurdity (and all those cheating girlfriends, a whole wall of them from the squad) wore him down.

Bookshelf. I need to start separating my memoirs from my essay collections from my factual non-fiction. It’s getting messy.

"This episode of Downton Abbey was 37 hours long."

Book: Something Dangerous
Author: Penny Vincenzi
Published: 2001 (Overlook)
Pages: 710

This is Downton Abbey in book form, minus the vast majority of the servants’ part and set a World War later in a family that still has ties to what made it rich (publishing). It starts out you know it’s like a soap opera but with way better production values and characters that are archetypes rather than flat-out stereotypes and that tells us a little at least about the general human condition, right? Sure. Plus she’s totally sleeping with the dude who’s terrible for her! 

But that’s not an endorsement. It’s a warning about how utterly dull wartime declarations can get when everyone’s intentions are noble and all tension is eased within a couple pages of bringing it up in the first place. And all the ladies take back their men after declaring them scoundrels and getting pregnant like every other day seriously they even talk about birth control and how they should use it and apparently that doesn’t happen because every other major plot point is “[Female character. Any of them. Seriously.] is pregnant!” Because it’s ALWAYS A SURPRISE and there’s 700 PAGES of that.

Plus there’s a sheen of historical irony that just gets more and more annoying as the characters worry about and hope for events that everyone damn well knows the outcome to by now. And the matriarch, who in my head was totally Maggie Smith even though she was actually the mom in the book, starts out admiring Hitler and his revolution but you know what changes her mind? The same arguments against fascism that she’s been hearing since he started out. The arguments just suddenly work somehow around the time he breaks the glass of every Jewish shopkeeper he can find.

It’s that kind of weak convenience that drives all the character changes, and I just couldn’t like it nearly as much as I thought I was going to in the first hundred pages. Donate.

Good books get better!

Book: Kingyo Used Books Volume 2
Author/illustrator: Seimu Yoshizaki
Published: 2004 (Viz Signature)
Pages: …I can’t tell.

I got to actually, literally, in real-manga-time see how reading a story affects people in the rest of their lives in this volume, so I now officially love this series.

Best examples: a schoolboy finds Tezuka’s Adolf in his desk and reading it and sending notes to the student with the same name who keeps leaving the volumes makes the boy take hold of his own destiny by defending himself and manga at the same time! And a boy who recently lost his father gets inspired to take a journey when he finds his dad’s favorite series and follows its lead.

The one weak spot is the story about the manly man secretly liking girly manga but being ashamed of it. Literally all that happens is him standing around muttering in a bookstore until a couple other guys unashamedly buy the girly stuff and the manly man is all, “Oh…so, I guess that’s okay then.” And that's where it ends.

 But there are still books that are palpably changing lives, and no, you can never argue with that because you won’t win. Going back to the library; I will eventually dine on the third volume.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Books on books on books

Book: Kingyo Used Books
Author/illustrator: Seimu Yoshizaki
Published: 2005 (Shogakukan)

I told my boyfriend not to lend me this first volume of this series because I’d want to read all four (which are the only ones out of eleven to be translated to English) at once because it’s about a used bookstore and OF COURSE I liked this book. Do you even know who I am, dear Reader?

But, it turns out, although I liked this book and did read it in one setting and am looking forward to the next adventures that selling used manga can bring, I find myself being able to wait.

I think that’s mostly because I wanted a little more from each little episode that’s presented here. Most of them would be so much stronger if they had just a bit more of an ending than someone hugging a book and smiling about how that book helped/changed them for the better. And this is coming from someone who does that ALL THE TIME in real life.

It’s still really heartwarming in a non-cheesy way to see how books spark inspiration, and relief, and nostalgia, and how they affect each customer in a different way that still ends up binding them together as a group with mutual appreciation. My favorite story was the one about a young American who gets obsessed with an old detective manga and lives it out in his real life and comes to Japan to meet the author because that one acted out the ending of how the book affected not just the boy but everyone around him, but the one I identified most with was the art student who reluctantly read a manga about a great artist and discovered that she wasn’t competing with all the artists in the world or even herself, but that she just wanted to contribute and be a part of that world.

I’m phrasing it badly, but that’s how I always want my writing to feel like. So brownie points to that story.

And it really does feel like visiting a bookstore, because I can go in and out when I want/can and can browse all the books at my leisure because they’re not going anywhere anytime soon, and all those stories are sitting there up to the ceiling waiting patiently for me to get back to them.


"Do you have any more of that mango?"

Book: Man or Mango? A Lament
Author: Lucy Ellmann
Published: 1998 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Beekeeping, poetry, perverts who grow giant vegetables, and staged murder weekends at boring Irish hotels all have something in common: deeply discontented people depend on them for one sort of bracing or another.

A lady who is slipping mostly willingly into hermitude uses an Irish weekend to get away from getting away.  An expat American poet uses the same hotel to try and finish his epic poem about ice hockey on his new patroness’s dime. These two were in love awhile ago, turns out, and they broke each other’s hearts, and, well, after years of obsessive lists and weird habits that burst out in stream-of-consciousness tandem chapters that sometimes are told first person, sometimes third and observations about everyday life that they desperately try to turn into art, they find each other again.

Perverts who grow giant vegetables just want to show off the giant vegetables, it turns out, or keep bees and harass the pretty hotel staff.

And then a lot of them drown in a stormy tidal wave that ended the hotel’s staged murder weekend early.

This was a hard reading experience to describe because just when I was starting to clap in the rhythm of a chapter, it would be over and a new one would start with a whole different tempo, and sometimes by the time I had caught up with that one it ended and changed again. But even while it was mildly frustrating, it also felt like a true record of how messy and absurd human emotion can go if it locks onto something against its will and tries hard to pull away or at least distract itself. It’s lyrical rather than clear.

It seems like it would reward more with repeated readings, but alas, this one is also a library baby. I have to give those all back.  

A very, very brief tour of what you already know from Psych 101

Book: A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness
Author: V.S. Ramachandran
Published: 2004 (Pi Press)
Pages: 112

You read that page count right, dear Reader. 112 of actual content – PLUS 65 pages of endnotes. The doctor says at one point, “Like a colleague says, the real story is in the endnotes!” which – dude, NO IT’S NOT. If it’s not important enough to put on the first page about it, then why the hell is it there in the first place?

And before you point out the big fat David Foster Wallace-fanning hypocrite in the blog, guess what. Footnotes start on the same page so at least you get the starting illusion that they have something to add to the subject instead of something that’s only worth squirreling away.

This book was so brief and spazzy that I didn’t learn a damn thing about the human consciousness that I hadn’t already gotten an “A” in for Psych 101. (Except that ragging on Texas culture is an even weaker grasp at humor when it’s abruptly inserted into a serious sentence.) It didn’t stay on topic long enough to discuss any of the experiments that supported its hypothesis about brain damage and how various points of said damage can show us how the brain works. He had some interesting ideas that, if you ignored the endnotes section (I did), were not supported at all, and even if you dipped into the notes (…fine, I only mostly ignored them) were only offered anecdotal evidence.

Plus he did that really annoying writing thing where he went, “And here is where I will tell you about x.” He really didn’t fucking need that tick, especially in such a small book. JUST SAY IT ALREADY.

I’ll be taking this one back to the library too. Fortunately, I just got in the hold queue for a Pulitzer-prize winning nonfiction, because I have not been batting well in this genre lately. 

Into the wilderness of Canadian journey fiction

Book: Sointula
Author: Bill Gaston
Published: 2004 (Raincoast Books)
Pages: 452

So this upper-middle-Canadian society lady wants to reconnect with the son who ran away when she told him his dad was her long-lost lover. When the lover dies, she tells her husband that she’s going to “a friend”’s funeral, sticks a cigar tube of his ashes into her shorts, and doesn’t take those shorts off for like weeks at a time as she immerses herself in the Canadian shoreline wilderness on a very meandering, waterlogged journey to where she’s heard her son is doing some whale watching.

Also drug dealing. He’s doing that too, waiting to play his own minor but lucrative role in a huge drug trade because apparently British Columbia weed is like the shit. (Disclaimer: this is a work of fiction and I’m not doing that fact-finding for it.)  But he really is into whales at the same time, and he’s struggling to see which bit of him will surface once the tides and mosquitoes and suspicious SUVs pass in the night.

On her way to her son’s island, the lady meets a British writer who is roughing it for the first time to get a book out of an idea that was really just an excuse to escape his own messy divorce.

The lady turns increasingly feral and detached from her current life while falling deeper in touch with the old. Scrounging for food and shelter and the occasional kayak hardens her senses while muddying her feelings. It just seems to make the writer guy horny, and delirious because he needs his gallbladder taken out. They don’t seem to be on the same plane of understanding, much less existence, and that creates friction both interesting and frustrating, because of course they end up sleeping together, although not until she decides to, although there’s not a clear reason why she decides to, although I think it has something to do with need that slowly wakes up in her after they land on civilization for a brief interlude.

Make sure you read this in the most humanly constructed comfort possible, because it’s detailed in how much even human-beaten nature fights back. You don’t need a hanky because it’s not melodramatic, but it is deeply emotional and lonely. And wet. And it’s a good example of how a quiet end can work if you’ve got enough story and character exhaustion to back it up.

I liked it. It was a balanced epic journey, where matching the emotional heft of what she wanted from taking the long way to her son was often beaten back by sheer practicality but her core reason stayed intact and didn’t waste any theatrics in revealing itself when the time came.
It’s back to the library for this one.     

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Jumping between worlds trailing run-on sentences

Book: The First Thing Smoking
Author: Nelson Eubanks
Published: 2003 (Random House)
Pages: 210

Two heritages, one crazy-ass family, several ways of growing up wrong.

I wouldn’t call these short stories, exactly, because they’re all too much innertwined with the same people and the same areas, just on different jumps in their timelines, but they’re too loose to be a novel. I like how they jump over the line like that, like a kid jumping rope next to a busted fire hydrant on a hot afternoon in Brooklyn. One jump you’re there, feeling the sidewalk slap the thin soles of your cheap shoes and sweating your brains out but outside your cramped apartment trying to avoid responsibility for your crazy-ass family, and the next you’re in the middle of Brazil’s Carnival, watching in slack-jawed wonder at all the bare asses and feathers because even though it’s your heritage, you feel like an alien and that’s good and bad at the same time and you can’t get past it until your mom nudges you to go check on your criminal uncle when he’s home for the holidays and suddenly you’re back to what you call home again.

Eubanks’s run-on sentences start with a simple thought or sensation and gather speed quickly, which works really well for his Brazil interludes because you get a sensory overload just like you’re supposed to, but it can be a little annoying as a tick in his more concrete episodes.
But he flows well and gets dialogue right and the last story is really good at tying together the two worlds through another gathering snowball of words, this one of lies that brings the main character to the unpleased true secret of keeping a relationship together (it’s lies, he says).
I like it. But the library wants it back. 

Winning, and why you shouldn't care but you probably do

Book: The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value
Author: James F. English
Published: 2005 (Harvard)
Pages: 345

This is an interesting subject told in a boring way. And when I say “boring,” I mean dumbed-down academic writing that’s meant to be for a mainstream audience but has still managed to keep its stuffiness.

But the subject truly is interesting enough to be worth the read (mostly). It’s about how cultural awards, like the Booker and the Pulitzer and the Nobel and the architecture prizes I can’t remember the name of but it’s a really big deal, affect the making and presenting and sort of pimping out of our art.

It talks about the history of such awards that go back to the earlier British and French universities, and how the explosion of prizes in the last couple decades has both mimicked and encouraged art’s explosion of diversity while keeping things more and more divided into their own little pockets of the art world, and how mock awards like the Razzies really enforce the industry awards they’re mocking by picking the works the industry ignored for the best as the worst, and how much more expensive/time intensive it is to put out an award than benefactors ever really think about.

Good sociology, but it actually doesn’t go far enough past the ropes of the artistic world for me. It mentions very briefly how the Oscars influences movie-going, but not nearly enough to explain it, and it never really does talk about how other prizes affect the general consuming public, if it makes them care more or less about something they never heard of, and that’s what I most would’ve liked to learn.

I enjoyed what it did offer, though, in spite of its pretentions. I literally spent like ten minutes trying to decide between this and the history of just the Nobel prize that was next to it on the shelf, and I might go back and read the other one to maybe get a better, fuller society view of at least one of these. Back to the library. 

The Moibus strip of life

Book: Schrodinger’s Ball
Author: Adam Felber
Published: 2006 (Random House)
Pages: 241

If a young man accidentally shoots and kills himself while cleaning his dad’s old gun in his grandma’s basement with the door closed and no one else to find him, is he actually dead?
Or does he still go out on the town with his group of friends, feeling and acting even more spacey than usual as they all seize onto his weirdness as an excuse to fend off the unraveling of bonds they all feel between each other?

This book’s title might clue you in on the answer, which is both, and all of the below.
Does the young man only truly die when his grandma opens the basement door a few days later at the exact instance the young man throws himself in front of his friends to prevent them from getting squashed by a giant 18-wheeler? Yes.

Theoretical physics mixes really well with the absurdity of the human condition, especially when it’s applied lightly and with the cynical armor of post-grad oh-god-what-are-we-doing-with-our-lives-and-each-other sarcasm.

The story does not make a hell of a lot of sense, especially the bits where a collective voice talks about how the real (but somehow still dead) Dr. Schrodinger butts into and invades their real life, only to gradually reveal that part as the hallucinations of a single, modern-day science lecturer who’s having a really hard time getting over the loss of his wife. This, and the parts of the philosophizing bag lady’s revisionist history of the world, are revealingly funny, but they only trickle into the main flow and only make it, like, a bigger stream, not a lake or something.

But then, the parts of an atom are a gajillion measuring units apart and look how well they hold everything together. So this was a good read, and I will be giving it back to the library’s bookshelf because guys, I walked through the stacks instead of the staff exit a week or so ago and that gets me every time. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Let's get it--no. No, let's not.

Book: Getting In
Author: Karen Stabiner
Published: 2010 (Voice New York)

I'm sort of obsessed with stories about high school kids busting their asses to get into the Ivy League, because I never went through any of that. I wanted the state school, the state school wanted me, the end. My senior spring semester of high school was way more worrying about whether I could pass calculus tests.

Anyway, no insight here. It's all high school politics as usual; nobody goes any deeper into why they want to go to Harvard or Stanford. I don't think they even say, like, "Oh, it's got an excellent marine biology program, and I totally want to work with whales," or something. It's all revealed to be pomp and tradition among a bunch of bright, pretty kids whose parents will all find a way to pay for it and a college counselor who makes this way more a business transaction than one should ever do to a job working with teenagers.  

And, you know, really good academics, like in general. But come on, people! More than that, please!


Donating. If I can scrape the "Only $3.97!" sticker off. 

Double the stories, double the fun

Books: The Best American Short Stories, 2006 and 2005
Authors: Various
Editors: Ann Patchett and Geraldine Brooks
Series editors: Katrina Kenison and Heidi Pitlor
Published: 2006 and 2011 (Houghton Mifflin)

Of course these are good books. They do the collective annual work of about $200 worth of lit mag subscriptions each year. Of course these aren't definitive collections of the best American short stories in any given year, but they're a damn good try.

Reading two volumes back-to-back did shine a rather glaring truth on one lit fic cliche, though - some of these stories just don't have endings. It's not even a question of whether there was a plot leading up to the last few pages or not, some of them just chopped off and left my brain early because there wasn't any last hook to hang my memory on.

Nevertheless! No stories in here were actually bad. Here are a list of ones that stuck: 

The Sleep: a town hibernates with unexpected success and consequences.
Housewifely Arts: a single mother travels to a wildlife preserve to hear a parent speak in her mother's voice one last time.
Phantoms: a town experiences phantom beings as part of their everyday life and start to wonder if they're normal or chosen.
Escape from Spiderhead: sci fi where prisoners are controlled by injected chemicals and thrown into moral quandaries to see how they react.
The Dungeon Master: a sociopathic teenager becomes a DD runner to get his revenge.
The Dog: a family goads a wife who can't cook into cooking a huge dinner to stop them from killing a dog.
Grandmother's Nose: a realistic take on Little Red Riding Hood
Mr. Nobody at All: an infamous artist gets eulogized by everyone he invited to his funeral, plus a few he told to stay the hell away.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Slow spiral into - what, exactly?

Book: The Other Typist
Author: Suzanne Rindell
Published: May 2013 (Amy Einhorn Books)
Pages: 354

I loved the premise of this story – a good-girl typist at a New York police precinct is excellent at her job and faithful to the truth as she records and transcribes confessions, until prohibition hits and the police station hires another typist to handle the workload. The new typist slowly reveals herself to be a modern gal and newly minted criminal as she even more slowly seduces the good girl over to the wrong side of propriety and law through an obsessive friendship that ends in more than one innocent person getting hurt.

It’s a coming-of-age story where the protagonist has no intention of or idea that she still had desires to change, set in a unique workplace juxtaposed against more familiar New York set pieces that were yet completely new to her (fancy apartment, underground speakeasies, house at the Hamptons) that throws her off kilter so hard she eventually falls off balance and discovers her best friend is not there to pick her up.


I’ve got two major problems with the execution:
  •  It’s so overwritten. Oh my god. I understand that the protagonist is an orphan who was educated by nuns and probably overcompensates for what was considered a bare-bones education, but seriously, she talks like a Victorian graduate student. And since this is told in first person with interior monologues and exposition, you can’t get away from it. By about a third of the way through – once I’d gotten past the setup – I’d gotten used to it, and it’s not like it was super unbelievable, but I never really liked it.
  •  The ending. I’ve been harping on endings more than usual lately (and that will continue), but this story’s central mystery depends on a strong resolution to the unreliable narrator hints that build up nicely throughout the rest of the book. Well, we don’t get that. It doesn’t go Shutter Island at the end, and apparently there’s ample evidence either way, so without spoiling a book that hasn’t officially come out yet, I’ll just complain that even in the 1920s police could’ve totally and easily patched some of the bigger holes presented here (especially about their own employee).

It was a good read, and I might catch it when it goes mass market in May to see what’s changed from the uncorrected publicity proof. The character details are really good, and this is ultimately intrigue driven directly by character development and discovery, so I will put it back in the library break room from whence it came, but I’ll be reluctant about it.   

Jane Austen on steroids

Book: Vanity Fair
Author: William Makepeace Thackray
Published: 1848 (original; 2004 Penguin this edition)
Pages: 809

Let me preface this review with something you should keep in mind throughout, because I’m going to sound like I’m contradicting this a couple times: I liked this book.

So let’s tear it apart! Well, that might be difficult given the softback-brick size – I bet you could use this edition to test the same sort of strength ripping a phone book in half requires. But I did digest this in chunks with several other books (in other reviews I post with this one) between the adventures of 19th-century people who like wealth too much to actually keep any of it and pure-hearted soles who by the tragicomic turnings of fate find themselves falling into the same poverty state as the people who got there dishonestly.

It’s basically three or four Jane Austen books together about the same two families. It covers roughly the same-ish time period, same sort of society manners, same sort of inheritance and scandal drama, same sort of scheming and emphasis on society and how that, more than private decisions, determines how a life will play out.

It’s also got the time’s same decorative, winking prose, although Thackeray is more ironic and pointed and fourth-wall-crashing when revealing hypocrisies that are widely known and still taken as givens in society circles. He also brings in more peripheral details that can be wickedly hilarious but don’t have bearings on anything except the general atmosphere. These all make you laugh and gain insight at unexpected points and understand even the characters he writes as completely unrepentant.

But it was a terrible lunchtime read, because it takes like twenty minutes to get back into (especially if you’ve been dealing with other readings that are modern and just as difficult, like legal decisions or software manuals) and then a few pages after I got going at a good clip I had to stop. And then pick it back up after work when I had to remind myself where I was again. 

Plus everyone’s referred to by like three different names, like their Christian name (okay – none of those repeat), their last name (oh…kay, we’ve got like three generation of men in the same family so…is she flirting with the dad or the—oh right, the son!), or their married name (is that a Mrs.? That’s a Mrs. Okay. This is the wifey. Gotcha). Stylistically, it’s not the easiest thing to keep straight.

Jane Austen anti-fans and people who don’t like society-driven plots in general probably won’t enjoy this, but please do believe me when I say I had a good time getting through it, especially since I didn’t pressure myself to push through the difficult bits. Sometimes absence really does make the reader grow fonder. Bookshelf.