Wednesday, June 26, 2013

In which my literary crush is justified

Book: State of Wonder
Author: Ann Patchett
Published: 2011 (HarperCollins)
Pages: 353

I officially love Ann Patchett.

I started a crush on her when she came to speak at the college I used to work at (oh my God, you guys, that was the November of Junot Diaz and the April of Ian McEwan and Jeffrey Eugenides too – I don’t know if there will ever be such a blow-our-wad lineup like that again). She talked about writing in her head as she married ketchup bottles during her waitressing job, and she talked about reading at libraries and auctioning off parts in another novel of hers to break writer’s block and how her neighbors won that and how she felt embarrassed at how they became breakout characters, and she talked about opening a bookstore, and she read from State of Wonder and goddamned if I wasn’t too cheap to buy it and get her to autograph it (she autographed the first page of a short story I had just started instead) then.

But  I finally found State of Wonder at the bookstore (as if that’s hard, but second-handers are a little more unevenly stocked) and got it and read it and I love its twining of character and plot, art and Amazon toughness.

It’s about a lady who goes to the Amazon to track down a doctor who’s working on a vaccine for fertility. The first dude who tracks down the doctor actually does find her, but he gets killed (…OR DOES HE?) before he can get her to come back to civilization.

So this other lady from the same pharmaceutical company goes, and oh, y’all, she goes in all squishy and uncertain and she comes out with the dude they thought was dead and a thick, complicated layer of understanding from the jungle doctor lady, and if anybody tells you lit fic is boring and doesn’t have anything, like, happening, you have my full permission to swat them over the head with this book (use a paperback).

There’s a young couple hired to keep people away from the jungle doctor through sheer force of their charisma, which they’re good at only it’s wearing on them; and a twelve-year-old deaf boy stolen who’s way more loyal to the tribe who stole him than the one who wants him back; and the jungle doctor herself, a mix of stubbornness and passion that she somehow whittles to cool determination even in the 10000% humidity of the Amazon while still being, you know, human.

I love it, and I’m going to put it on my bookshelf, but not before I clip my Patchett autograph to the front cover. 

A very self-explanatory title

Book: The Men Who Stare at Goats
Author: Jon Ronson
Published: 2004 (Picador)
Pages: 256

More goats, only this time they’re being stared at really hard by special ops who are hoping to burst their hearts, or at least knock them unconscious.

Jon Ronson really did not have to put many frills at all on this story. Like all good journalists, he reported the facts and let the weirdness speak for itself. Like all good skeptics, he poked hardest at the angles he couldn’t believe to see how well they would stand under pressure.
The reports of what was being tested in the name of psychological warfare were mostly true, from what he could gleam without getting himself deeply, classified-ly killed. The results of those tests were a lot harder to determine, but that didn’t mean he didn’t find a lot of people in very high places who believed in them.

Among other things, Ronson talks about real psychological effects of light and sound patterns that are used as torture, and their deeper, sub-conscious levels that might already be part of arsenal should anyone actually be able to detect and prove results. Those were my favorite parts – when the tangible slipped into the intangible and suddenly we’re staring at crazy, but how crazy is it, really, when this part comes from something that ‘s been proven true, or at least measurable?

Ronson doesn’t have any ultimate answers, but he presents events and evidence like a slightly more curious, slightly more intelligent everyday-man who’s just transcribing his journey into a rabbit hole that takes itself exponentially more seriously the further he digs into it.

Definite bookshelf. I really want to read his first book, Them: Adventures with Extremists now, because that would be an even more, well, extreme experience, and he presents those well.

I don't care who your dad is - bring me more sea monster!

Book: The Monsters of Templeton
Author: Lauren Goff
Published: 2008 (Voice)
Pages: 361

Excellent premise: a lake monster surfaces in a small New England town, supposedly bringing up all sorts of family/town secrets with it from the murky depths. Down-on-her-luck town daughter returns from her plane crash affair of an academic career and starts to dig in. Neat, huh?

Yeah, except the monster didn’t have anything to do with much of anything except itself. I loved its parts, where it surfaced and how it sunk back down after the town had its fun and mystery scavenged to death, but they were those sort of makeshift bookends you use when you don’t want to pay like $50 for the real, matching-set thing.

In the middle, the daughter does a serviceable job of scrounging up her family’s history and pasting it together with the town’s to find out who her real dad was. There were bits from old letters and diaries and portraits that made for good changes of tone when the present day tone started to feel too much like an “are you my daddy?” episode of a daytime talk show. Not like Maury or anything, not that bad, but maybe one of Oprah’s adoption reveal specials. (She did those, right? If not, imagine she did. Or sell her that idea for me and give me 100% commission.)

But the problem is, the central ancestry mystery never seemed all that urgent by itself and it never integrated hints of or explicit elements of magical realism connected with the lake monster like I thought it would. The girl’s mom literally doesn’t tell her who her dad is because. Just because. It gives the anthropologist daughter a good human puzzle to work on, but honestly, the solution doesn’t really change anything for her. 

I was also looking forward to the collective voice that Groff uses so well in a couple of her short stories. It seemed perfect for this kind of town-as-a-character mix I thought she was trying to get, but the only collective voice is the group of guys who run together every morning and have for the last couple decades; again, nice idea, but it ends up falling into broad general guys-getting-old stuff that squanders chances to add any sort of real character to the town.

Sigh. I dunno, I still liked this book, but it was a lot more gossipy than ethereal, so I guess I’ll leave it piled somewhere until my new bookshelf starts getting full and so will my baseboard spaces and I’ll have to make a decision to keep from drowning in words (but what a beautiful way to die!). 

Goats balls: a cautionary tale

Book: Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam
Author: Pope Brock
Published: 2008 (Crown Publishers)
Pages: 281

Guys, letting a dude cut open your nut sack and stuff it full of goat, uh, “glands” will not restore your vitality.

That seems pretty obvious, but apparently the early 20th century had some really good con artists and some really stupid, desperate patients, so many that John Brinkley was able to start a nation-wide(ish) empire and several dozen copycats from one Kansas clinic on the claims that goat bits were the key to restoring sex drive.

Let me re-iterate for those of you with ideas: IT DIDN’T WORK.

What did work, of course, was Dr. Brinkley’s endless oily charm, creative writing ability applied to full-page ads and testimonials, and – the most interesting part to your former college dee jay and general soundboard nerd – his skirting of the earliest FCC airwaves laws.

See, Brinkley grabbed up a Mexican radio station that was just south of the US boarder and had none of our sissy signal strength limitation laws, so dude could broadcast his goat-flavored snake oil, wild-ass sermons, and all the good country music he could coax down there up to like Iowa. It worked so well he inadvertently turned into a tastemaker who launched the careers of people like the Carter family, in which June Carter was a tiny little star, and other folks I can’t remember because country is a genre I haven’t studied up on. But they were big, Jerry, big!

That was the most interesting part. The rest of the story was variations on new ways to convince people the goat thing worked, battling people who said it didn’t and could prove it, and moving around and making money before he could be shut down. The sections were short and don’t ask me to name his competitors/mentors/copycats because they seriously all ran together and paled against the fact of what they were all doing.

One aspect that didn’t get nearly enough explanation was that ladies were getting this operation too, with the matching goat bits. As in getting their uteruses replaced with goat ones. That’s mentioned in passing a couple times, but not in nearly enough detail to answer my horrified how in the fucking fuck did that even WHAT? I don’t know, although I know exactly how they replaced testicles. This seems a bit unfair.

There wasn’t any chase from the law unless you count the trial at the end, which was sort of anti-climatic or anything else truly, plot-drivingly exciting, but the sheer (pun ahoy) balls of what Dr. Brinkley got away with was really fun to read. Bookshelf! 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The magic of stories as told through stories

Book: Anansi Boys
Author: Neil Gaiman
Published: 2005 (HarperCollins)
Pages: 384

Y’all, Neil Gaiman’s words have officially put him in my “I will fangirl hug you despite your real-life choices” category. I love this book. I really like American Gods, but I love this book.
His everyman in this one is more interesting, which is to say more Britishly fumbling and way more attached to his way of life, all the better to contrast with his long-lost, cool-ass, so-charming-it-bends-reality brother who turns up after their dad’s death and starts wrecking havoc that forces everybody to fight for what they love while coming to terms with some really weird family heritage.

The reality and fantasy elements blend so well that it’s all believable and fantastic at the same time. I didn’t think about real life once while I was reading this, which means it never got so boring that my brain started wandering to what I was supposed to do at work in the morning or whatever,* and also that it created its own new reality around how stories create reality and how society uses them and I had no chance of not liking this, basically.

Bookshelf! I’m attempting to escalate the Gaiman game in my collection – Sunday I snagged Good Omens on bookstore volunteer credit, and soonishly eventually I will experience Sandman in some way of acquisition.

*Short PSA: my boyfriend and I broke up about a week and a half ago. What that means for this blog: my graphic novel reviews will get more erratic. Romance novels will continue to irritate me in the same ways as outlined in previous post. 
What that means personally: I sort of feel like Pinky asking “What are we going to do tonight, Brain?” and not getting an answer. If that sounds trivial, you haven’t met the person you want to take over the world with.  

How the other half drag you down (and then up, and then down again)

Book: Fierce People
Author: Dirk Wittenborn
Published: 2002 (Bloomsbury)
Pages: 335

This is the rich, slightly weirder-ass version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which, though I hailed as the most subversive realistic thing I’d read at fourteen, is actually your fairly standard square-gets-wild finds-meaning-of-life power-of-weirdo-friends coming of age arc.
And trust me, I feel just as cynical as that sentence sounds. But! This book adds unique details that ramp up the outsider-ness: this kid and his sort-of functioning junkie mom get a chance to move out of their shitty NYC situation into a rich neighborhood when the mom gets a “job” as a personal masseuse for the dude who owns the place.

Oh yeah, there is plenty of speculation of how exactly his mom gets (and keeps) this job, but the kid gets wrapped up in neighborhood society politics by becoming friends with kids from the only two extremes of class represented (kids from the rich neighborhood families and the domestic help that waits on them) and falling in lusty, hormonal love with the patriarch’s granddaughter.

That plus suppressed neighborhood secrets press together and rub against each other into explosive results that completely dissect the society’s framework.

Bookshelf. It’s just the right blend of scandalous, growing up, and satire that’s very well disguised in humanity. Good stuff.

We're all looking out for ourselves here.

Book: Sociobiology and Behavior
Author: David P. Barash
Published: 1977 (Elsevier North-Holland)
Pages: 324

I read this whole thing because it was an interesting subject. Not for the writing style.
It’s a textbook. There’s a sticker on the back from where they sold it at the local college bookstore for $9 before it found its way to the used bookstore I volunteer for. So that means the usual tics of unnecessarily announcing what it’s going to talk about like a sentence before it gets into it and contorting sentences and repeating itself – although I appreciate that last bit, because this is scientific information that I haven’t had a test about in about two and a half years.

But! To the subject: sociobiology is basically applying biological principles to social behaviors in animals. This gets into altruism, mating and parental behavior, territory defense, and also how all this applies to humans. It turns out that most everything can be traced back to individual fitness, which means how many offspring individuals can produce to their own reproducing age.

That’s a massive simplification on my part, because that is the backbone from which the rest of the body of theory grows. Yeah. Like, even a lot of altruistic behavior that seems detrimental to the individual doing the altruising (I made that gerund up, y’all) actually increases their individual fitness because it helps their kids and grandkids survive longer so it helps the gene line go on.

Applying all this humans gets delightfully messier because we have to add the whole cultural conditioning influence on top of biology, and holy crap who the hell can untangle those two by now. Nobody. But science sure has fun trying, so this is staying on my nonfiction shelf.

But don’t use this for gospel sociobiological truth right now. It was published in 1977, so I’m sure there are a bajillion advances on this by now. Go take an AP class. 

Tiny pieces of fluff

Book: American Girls About Town
Authors: various
Published: 2004 (Simon and Shuster)
Pages: 385

OH MY GOD YOU GUYS WHO CARES. This is my general attitude toward romance novels, and it was not proven wrong by this collection of short stories. Which this Reader thought might provide enough variety in short snippets to sort of lopsidedly even out the overall quality.
But I can’t even figure out the premise of this collection. Is it about American girls abroad, or abroad girls in America, or girls of indeterminate nationality just boppin’ around their own countries, in which case why even bring America into it in the first place – because there are examples of all of these, and setting rarely has anything to do with anything.  

One of the stories is the extraordinarily shallow, bitchy inner monologue of a lady in yoga class who meets her boyfriend for lunch afterwards and he gives her a yoga-themed anklet. That’s IT. Like, I’m pretty sure it was set in LA, but I don’t even have any textual evidence for that except they do a lot of yoga in LA, right?
I guess it’s really because they’re all by American lady authors, but that brings up problems of its own. …Which I’ve just forgotten. Because none of the stories convince me that they matter or go into the uniqueness of their romances. The only way to describe all the clichés here is to resort to cliché myself, so I’m going to donate it.