Monday, April 25, 2005

Another Book Club Thing

Katie and I have reached a compromise about this month's horrible Mainstream Book Club selection, The Epicure's Lament. I'm about 1/3 of the way through, and I hate it. Katie read a few pages and then skimmed the rest, and hates it. So she's going to use this amazing power of skimming that she has to get the whole plot down, and I'm going to find passages and details from the language in the 1/3 I've read, and we're going to pool our resources in our own little set of Cliff's Notes to avoid reading the rest.

Huzzah; it is an awful book.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Fellow Alumni

Linden says she doesn't feel like there are a lot of good books out there to read, and she doesn't know where to find them, except through recommendations. This is how I do it:

I'm on the Boston area Williams alumni listserver. Amanda Eyre Ward, a Williams alum, was going to be reading from her new book. I couldn't make the reading (I really try not to do things that require me to trek too far out on the Green Line), but I looked her up at the library and idly checked out her first book, Sleep Toward Heaven. It was really quite a good book--simple, but true, and personal. She did a great job of creating three characters, and also of tying them together without (mostly) being heavy-handed about it.

This method is often hit-or-miss. It includes things like books that are reviewed on Slate, books that are mentioned in the reviews of other books, books that we read for book club, or that were considered for book club but discarded, or books I see on my friends' shelves, or on display at the bookstore. There are a lot of duds in this pile, though I think I'm a pretty good judge of what I'm going to enjoy at this point.

I've also gotten comfortable with stopping after 50 pages if I really don't like it. I'm getting older, my time is too valuable to waste. That's been a very liberating thing--I rarely have to regret picking a book up, because it never wastes more of my time than it's worth. Fifty pages of wasted time is worth experiencing a cautionary example.

For example, I'd stop reading The Epicure's Lament, if I didn't feel this dragging obligation of Book Club. Urg--another story.

Friday, April 15, 2005


Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day, which was a good movie, and which now I have to read, along with When We Were Orphans. And all this because I just finished his new book, Never Let Me Go, which was so good I had a really hard time returning it to the library. Which is not to say that I need to own it, but that when I finished it and sat back, I felt strongly like it wasn't really done with me.

It's deceptively simple--the voice of the main character is not of someone speaking poetry, or even trying. It's the voice of a friend of yours, a 30-year-old woman recounting stories from her private-school childhood. She tells them in the meandering way that one recounts one's own life, because in reality, a lifetime of moments do not all point to some cataclysmic ending. Rather, she tells stories she remembers, about her relationships with her best friends, about their growing up. Kathy will begin with a story that sticks out in her memory, then backtrack to an earlier incident that gives more meaning to the later incident, and hint at how it's affected who she is now.

But I think what makes this book wonderful is that it's about an alternate world. The England in the story is one with an alternate history, but only slightly. And the characters in the story inhabit an alternate society that lives side-by-side with the rest of us in their England, but it's not about us. Kathy is familiar, moreso than most characters in books, I think, because she is the same distance from you as people you meet--you're listening to her talk to you, rather than living inside her head with her. And that makes the separation of her world more poignant.

Also, the book is about injustice without being about change. I think this is very powerful. Almost every social injustice that has been or is being fought against was once and for a long time accepted as fact, without fanfare. I feel like there aren't a lot of those left--plenty of injustices, but few that aren't recognized. But these people live lives that make you at first want them to rise up and change things. Gradually, though, you realize this book isn't about change. It's about realization, and the meaning of life. It doesn't give answers, but yes, I'd say this book is about the meaning of life.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

On a Promised Topic

The good news is that I can release a little of my library list guilt. I just realized that at least 17 of the titles on that list are not so much things that I want to read as things that I want to remember the existence of so that I might someday go back to read them. This means that there are not 50 books I'm trying to cram into my brain at the same time--only 33.

As advertised: Why I Didn't Finish Up the Down Staircase. I expected a book about teaching, and this is a book about having a job. This young woman, just out of graduate school, who has studied English with passion and has been excited to share it with students arrives at her first teaching job to discover that it's not what she expected. This is exactly what I signed on for--excellent!

But what she found had nothing at all to do with students or connecting to people. It was about bureaucracy, bosses who micromanage trivial things, other bosses who are oblivious to reality, janitors who don't show up. There has been one scene that even involved students, and that was based entirely arounder there being too many directives from the office and a broken window that nobody would clean up. It was in no way about students.

The structure of the novel makes this feel inevitable. It's an assemblage of memos from the office, clippings from the school paper, notes written back and forth between teachers, and letters to the main character's friends. This leaves a lot of room for her to talk about the nitty gritty of her day-to-day, but not a lot for actual interaction with people.

It's too bad--I saw the play based on this book once, and it was quite good. Probably there's a story in here somewhere, but it's a long book, I'm not enjoying it, and I've got other things to do. I'm going to read Dangerous Minds, though, because I suspect that book will fulfill my need for a story about teachers reaching out to kids who aren't eager to learn.

Also, a note on my observation that books I read come in waves I can't necessarily predict: I'm currently reading three books about people with genetic abnormalities. Expecting Adam, about a woman who finds out her unborn son has Down's Syndrome, Middlesex, about a child who is born with ambiguous genetalia and is raised a girl, only to grow up and find out himself a man, and Fearless, a really TERRIBLE young adult book (by the Sweet Valley High author, if that tells you anything) about a girl "born without the fear gene." Ugh.

Monday, April 04, 2005


March has been a wonderful and horrible month. Work has been draining and hideous, I've felt overcommitted and have not had enough rest or kept my personal life in the state I prefer it. On the wonderful side, Mike and I both got promoted and engaged. So I guess this month goes down in history, huh?

I hold out hope for April, in part by refreshing here. March doesn't actually end for me, work-wise, till next week (courses pub this Friday, next week devoted to troubleshooting, and then we're back in the land of the normals). So I will stop here long enough to say: more soon.

And also to make the point--where does the BPL order their books? The two books I want to read have been "On Order" for weeks now. If they would just use Amazon, they'd have them by now. I really wish I could work there part time, processing new books or something tedious and refreshing like that. But they won't hire you unless you live in the city of Boston. What kind of a deal is that?

Updates I owe: Why I didn't finish Up the Down Staircase. How Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders reminded me of college. And, long overdue, What I thought of my first Joyce Carol Oates novel.