Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Back to Books

I have a bushel of books, but I had a run of finishes this week, which is making me feel better about January. Jenny McCarthy's autism memoir was a quick read, and not bad (though not spectacular). Then there was Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days, and I think she's officially one of my new favorite authors. It was a young adult book, on the younger teen end of the range, in that it not only has a fairy tale plot, but a fairy tale structure. But I just loved it--I loved Dashti's experience working in the kitchen and fighting off rats and her cat, and just everything. The best stories are the one that make mundanities seem fascinating.

This is what appeals about Megan McCafferty's books, and Fourth Comings, while more serious and somewhat grimmer than the others, is just as satisfying. Her fast-talking, painfully young teen angst is exactly right, and so satisfying in a deeply horrible way.

The schoolwork will start rolling in this weekend and my real reading time will be harshly cut into. But for now, I'm going to blow through what I can in time. I'm on my way out the door, with Goose Girl by Shannon Hale in my bag and Maisie Dobbs waiting for the finish on my bedside table. Life, for this moment, is pretty sweet.

Monday, January 28, 2008

And Me Without My Lunch Box

So school started today. Perhaps not many of you know (though I'm sure all of you can imagine) how poorly I handle new situations. I think Linden might be the only one our there reading this who understands just how much I cried during my first week at college. And any number of people will remember my ongoing delusion for my first two years at the office that every staff meeting that was called was expressly for the purpose of firing me publicly. I do understand that I overreact to these things. For the past few weeks, any hint that school was coming has caused me to come very close to wetting myself. There was much gnashing of teeth (which I have documented from my dentist--she made me buy a mouthguard, but I haven't worn it yet), and a good deal of weeping and wailing.

And then today I had class. And it was, unsurprisingly, fine. Everyone's been telling me it would be fine. And I mean, I've been to school, and I did fine, and I'm a relatively intelligent person, and seriously, how unfine can it be? Answer; not at all unfine. Inasmuch as it was fine. The material is not at all over my head; it's actually about designing empirical studies to assess how well library services are doing what they're trying to do. It makes sense; a library doesn't have sales figures to figure out whether they're successful.

So this is a good first step. The other class, meeting Thursday, will be a lot more work, but whatever happens...well, I'm in it for real now. We'll have to see what happens.

More on books tomorrow; I read a ton this weekend.

Friday, January 25, 2008

She Wrote the Doorbell

It's been a quiet week around here, partially because I was working on the same little pile of books all week and embarrassed to keep talking about them, partially because I was having the nervous fits before, during, and after grad school orientation on Wednesday, and partially because I am a lazy schlub.

I finished 1 Dead in Attic and Charmed Thirds, both of which were excellent in very different ways. And today I went to the library and picked up (deep breath) FIVE new books. I'm proud, though, because I had at least three more pulled off the shelf, but returned them because that would be excessive.

Among my new acquisitions is Louder than Words: A Mother's Journey in Healing Autism. I enjoy autism memoirs, partially because they bring me back to my experiences working with those kids, partially because it's reassuring to see these writers finding the strength to do something that I don't know if I would have the strength for. Having an autistic kid is one of my biggest fears, because it's such an ill-defined disease with such a cobbled-together, only-partly-proven course of treatment.

This is mostly beside the point, because while this is an interesting account of autism (so few of them begin with a hospital trip or medical crisis), the really engrossing part is that the author is Jenny McCarthy. You remember Jenny, I'm sure, because who didn't waste at least one high school afternoon watching Singled Out on MTV? She was the belching, bodacious bleached-blonde babe who waggled her tongue at the camera in the dirty Vanna White role on the show. Yes, that Jenny McCarthy. And honey, I'll tell you, this book ain't ghost written.

She's written two others, Belly Laughs, a memoir of pregnancy, and Baby Laughs, about caring for her infant son. Those are humor books, and while this one isn't without laughs, it's a more serious story she's telling. Let me tell you, this woman writes like she talks, and she talks like a crazy person. She uses a lot of exclamation points, and talks to God, prays, and follows her immediate gut instincts all over the place (Jenny McCarthy is VERY religious, raised Catholic but now just good pals with God. Go figure.). She asks me to "guess what?" several times in the course of ten pages near the beginning.

But my favorite part is when she calls the Morman Tabernacle in Salt Lake City and asks them to send someone to do a healing prayer over her son. The anecdote is pretty funny, including a joke about the word balls that I'm sure went over GREAT with the two 19-year-old missionaries the church sent her, but the best part is the beginning, when the two young men arrive at her door. "DING DONG." Yes, like a good old fashioned episode of Batman, the sound effects are written into the text.

I tease, but that's not fair. The truth is, it reads very much like an excellent raconteur (raconteuse?) telling an interesting story, and the only reason that doesn't work perfectly is because when you actually transcribe the way most people talk, it sounds, well, somewhat off. I have to say, though, that even when she's not finding out that her son has a devastating diagnosis, she sounds like someone who's so full of energy that she'd be tiring to be around. And her husband's a dink.

That's all the news from here. I might update later this weekend with more info about Wednesday's info session at school, but I'm still digesting it and trying to pretend that classes don't start soon (Monday! I have a class on Monday! I'm DYING!), so I need to process things before I can really dig in. Suffice it to say, I'm not too intimidated by the classes, but I'm a little beaten down by the amount of career planning they expect from you before day 1.

Happy weekend, one and all.

Monday, January 21, 2008


I've never been to New Orleans, nor ever wanted to go--I'm not into music or seafood (I'm pretty sure you couldn't pay me to eat a crawfish), I don't like partying or crowds, and I hate hot weather. So The Big Easy was never someplace I dreamed of going, though I guess I always imagined that I might end up there for some reason, someday.

I'm about halfway through 1 Dead in Attic by Chris Rose. It's sweet and sad and poignant, and while a lot of the "spirit of the city" stories are really about human resilience, with a New Orleans flavor, there is a great deal of the idea of New Orleans here, a lot about what makes it a special, strange, glamorous, wild place. Aside from the loss of life and property, it's clear that Rose is really traumatized by the loss of place, by the fact that something that existed as such a solid and real thing--the very world--can cease to exist as we know it, can become something entirely different, less hospitable, unreal. It reminds me forcibly how much of human history is a string of events like this, and how insulated from the reality of nature we generally are. I believe that my house will be standing tomorrow, but in so many ways, anything can happen.

No matter how grim the material, though, for the first third of the book, the predominant tone is one of bewilderment, confusion, and pleading. The last few essays, though, have taken on a stronger tone of anger and impotent rage, with an overtone of growing hysteria. It's getting strange, more disconcerting, and more difficult to read. Which is funny because, as a commenter noted the other day, the columns are not in chronological order. I think I'm doing all right with that, though, because, although they don't tell a direct narrative, they do have a steadily developing tone.

Unfortunately, it's developing in an emotionally tricky direction. If I could renew the book, I'd probably put it on the back burner for a few days, because I have a hard time keeping the desperate emotions in the books I'm reading from taking me over. But the library waitlist is going to keep me going, and I think, while it'll be hard, it'll be closer to the emotional experience that something like this ought to be--immersive, hard, but true.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Wading Around

This is going to be one of those months when I go weeks without finishing a book and then finish five of them in three days. I'm dancing back and forth between Charmed Thirds and Maisie Dobbs, and I'm enjoying both so much I can barely decide which one to read from minute to minute. I have this feeling that someday I'm going to come down to the point where both books are open in front of me and I'm switching off page by page. It speaks well of what I'm reading, but I don't think that would be healthy.

I'm worried that I won't have as much time to read when school starts. It seems obvious that I won't be able to keep up the pace I've been keeping--though is it? I read the same number of books while working a full time job. I know school is a big commitment, but we're talking about 6 hours per week of classes. Could that really be much more than 35 hours a week of work?

You may have noticed me worrying about school.

I was reading a conversation online this morning about gender identity and books for kids. It was a bunch of parents discussing good books about or containing gay or bisexual characters. People were posting lists of books introducing the idea of straight, gay, and bisexual to toddlers and little kids, and dealing with those issues more thoroughly for older kids and teens. One thing they were lamenting, though, is the lack of books for little kids that have these ideas in the background, without being all about them. So you can buy a book to introduce the idea of having two mommies to a little kid, but you can't find a book that's about something else in which the character just happens to have two mommies. This is also true of other nontraditional family constructions, like families with different racial makeups, adoptions, or multiple parent constructs; it's possible to find a book to help you teach kids about these ideas, but not a book about, say a little girl having a fight with her friend (or a lost baby polar bear, or whatever) in which the nontraditional family is just there and taken as a matter of course.

This is a shame. My someday-kids are going to be raised to a white mom and dad, and I hate the idea that, while I can explain all I want that not everyone is like that, the fact of white hetero families will be the default of the world they live in, both in real life and in the media.

This isn't something I lament every day, because I have the luxury of not having to think about it. But right now I have a real itch to go out and write a kids book about an adopted black kid with two white moms and a biodad. Or something. I don't know enough to address this intelligently, but it's out there, in my head, floating around. I'll have to think more about this somewhere up the line, I suppose, when someday-kids appear on the horizon.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Throw Open the Windows

It's not like I finished any books or anything, but I started a few new ones last night, and it was pretty exciting. I am so easily pleased by new things--shiny! covered with glitter!--that it's a little embarrassing how bad I am at finishing the old ones. Around my house it's common knowledge that I'm great at the first 90% of a task, and really, really, REALLY awful at the last 10%.

So here I am, poking around in Maisie Dobbs by, I believe, Jacqueline Winspear (Mike wasn't sure that was the author's name since it's much less believable as a person's name than Maisie Dobbs. This is a 1920s lady detective story, and the five pages I've read are awesome. Thanks to Becky for that recommendation.

1 Dead in Attic is a collection of essays written by New Orleans journalist Chris Rose after Hurricane Katrina. I'm guessing he was a columnist, because he seems to have written the essays weekly. I read about the book online somewhere, but I probably wouldn't have picked it up if it wasn't for Dooce linking to his column describing the depression he suffered in the aftermath of all the suffering he witnessed. I was really impressed by the article--he does an excellent job of writing about depression from both sides, both as someone who has and is suffering from it, but also as someone who never really understood it until it happened to him. Even the most sensitive of us can have trouble understanding a mood disorder until we've experienced it--and sometimes not even then. (Like Laurie in my college psych class who raised her hand to contribute, "I don't understand why depressed people don't just decide to get happy." Sadly, she was a psych major.)

So far, I've only read about three of the columns, but they're really beautiful, full of pain and guilt (his house was barely damaged) and bewilderment. My only wish is that there was a map in the book; I don't know enough about New Orleans to have a clear picture of all the geographical background he gives, and I think a little help might be useful.

I haven't finished anything, though, so I need to get back on task for that last 10% (though it's really more than half of the two books I'm in the middle of that need to be finished. And I really want to read Caddie Woodlawn soon. So much to do! Burdensome!)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Not About Books

My classes could start at absolutely any minute; I haven't been paying much attention. I'm pretty sure I have another week or so, though. I'm freaking out.

I'm going to be studying library science starting in two weeks. I'm not convinced this is a good idea; I have historically been fairly good at going to school, but I have a high baseline level of anxiety, and the rolling nature of schoolwork (that is, the fact that the obligation to do work does not end at 5pm or on Friday afternoon) has never been good for my brain.

So you'll have to forgive me if I'm finding this distracting. I'm not going very far or very fast in anything that I'm reading, and I have a tendency to flinch at random moments during the day when I think about the fact that I have to start going to school soon. I will, however, keep the world posted as I learn library-y things--it'll be like a free education!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Like a Thrifty Man's Butter

Which is to say, spread a little thin. I don't have much to report from the wide world of literature and libraries, because when you're reading four books, you're barely reading at all. I'm almost done with Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear (which everyone should read, by the way, because it's an excellent guide to how to think about personal safety by a very smart guy who does this for a living). It's a reread, and a fast book anyway, so that'll be done tonight, I'm sure.

I've started Promise Not to Tell by Jennifer McMahon, which is not horrible, but not great. I've already cleared the 20% mark, so I'll probably finish it (it'll probably take another three hours, so it's not that much of an investment). It's promising me a murder mystery, but so far it's mostly about an outsider of a little girl observing another child's hardscrabble life with horrified fascination, which I'm feeling, too. Then there are the modern-day bits, in which the grown-up girl is dealing with her mother's growing dementia. Really, what I've read so far sounds like a bit of an Oprah book (which would be fine; I like a lot of Oprah books), but it's kind of dry, and I think someone's going to get murdered.

Oh, also the main character's name is Kate Cypher. I certainly hope they explain that in a way that makes it okay that her name is so on the nose.

Charmed Thirds, Megan McCafferty. Not quite as densely smart and angsty as and Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings (why is high school angst so much less annoying than college angst?), but still smart and angsty, and I'm loving it. (Aside: why does blogger say I'm spelling "angsty" wrong two of these times, but not the first one? Is it accusing me of overusing a word that quite possibly doesn't legitimately exist? Guilty as charged.)

To Say Nothing of the Dog. I'm really enjoying this, but I have to force myself not to rush it, because it's not that kind of book.

Library school starts in just a couple of weeks, and I've managed to convince myself that I'm not going to be scared out of my mind until the week after next. Really I'm scared out of my mind right now, but I'm letting all those feelings float away....like a leaf in a stream....a very, very anxious leaf....

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Becky, I'm So Sorry

...but I just can't read Exodus. I've tried, I really have, but I just can't get drawn in--jumping from story to story, the writing style is so matter-of-fact, and the details are so familiar, I just can't get my head in it. I'm so sorry; I don't think it's a bad book, I'm just not in a place to read it.

I'm almost 100 pages in--with another book, I'd stick it out another 200 pages or so to the end, but knowing that the end is over 500 pages away from me....I just can't do it.

You get to slap me good next time you see me, okay?

My light reading this week is The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker. It's light because I've read it before--I'm skimming it in a reread, because it's such an interesting book. I love nonfiction with a lot of concrete facts in it. Have I mentioned that lately?

I'm probably going to be reading To Say Nothing of the Dog for a very long time--it's not really a "plow through" kind of book. (Aside: is plough a British spelling? Because blogger doesn't recognize it.) Mike and I are also reading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Miserable Mill. It's a nice book for reading out loud to each other, in the car or while one of us is doing something like cooking dinner or drawing.

I also have a total of about 14 other library books out. Something really needs to be done about that; possibly I need to start reading The Complete Essays of Mark Twain, but more likely I should pick up Charmed Thirds, which will be both quick and trashy. Delish.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

That Jim Carrey Book

I had read the first three books in the Series of Unfortunate Events series. They're clever and charmingly written, but they are, in many respects, all alike, and there is a frustrating and recurring theme of nobody listening to the kids. So I basically decided to stop reading them. And then, of course, I got access to the books of the middle school library, and suddenly I'm carrying around The Miserable Mill. It's good, like they're all good, but this is book 4 of 11, and I think after this I'm going to skip to the end. Unless this one has something very different going on, which I doubt.

We watched the movie this weekend, though. All three children were marvelous, and I loved how they subtitled Sunny's coos. But...ah, Jim Carrey. There were long moments in the movie where it's clear that they just let him riff, told the kids to look stiff and incredulous, and then looped the background music to cover the right amount of time. Not, not good. Long riffs, repetitive, hammy...everything you expect from Jim Carrey. I think I only ever liked him in two movies: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and, believe it or not, Liar Liar. This is not a movie blog, so I don't feel the need to explain myself there.

Next up, To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is a preposterous title, but the subtitle, How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump At Last, is even worse. The book, though, is by Connie Willis, and is very good, even on page 20 or so. I think it helps to have read her Doomsday Book, because it has the same setting, but I don't think it's necessary.

Final note: they made a movie of Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. It's animated in her comic style and in French. But the movie is black and white (not grayscale) and the English subtitles are, inexplicably, all in white. Good luck to you there.

Friday, January 04, 2008

More on God

Read that title out loud. No heresy intended. I promise this will be the last religious book entry for a while--I'll head straight into thrillers and chick lit, possibly some sci fi.

I just read Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren F. Winner. This is the woman who wrote Girl Meets God, which I read a while back, and really didn't like. And yet somehow, I keep reading all her books. I actively seek them out, and I actually enjoyed this one, and I'm struggling with that, but I think I've figured out why.

First, Girl Meets God was a personal story of being Jewish, converting to Orthodox, and then converting to Christianity. That's a convoluted journey to take, and, in my opinion, requires some justification, which the author does not give. Not only does she fail to seem at all sheepish for having such a tangled path, but she narrates the book with such conviction and authority, as though it was silly how much confusion she went through to arrive at such an obvious spiritual place. But she's writing only a couple of years after her conversion. She acts like someone with perspective and some secret knowledge, without earning either of those things.

So why do I keep coming back to her? I think this is quite simple, and it's the same reason I love Sarah Vowell--I love it when someone takes a complicated and esoteric subject and does all the research for me, so I can just show up and be showered with the interesting tidbits. (It's a cheap way of being intellectual, but it's better than nothing.) And when she's not talking about herself, Winner is excellent. She's at her best when she's synthesizing the work of academics and priests and rabbis and the Bible and the Talmud, and telling me what obscure mystic writers say about some of the things that she's discussing, and then telling me about how her friend Molly put this theory into practice.

So I really enjoyed Mudhouse Sabbath, which was about some of the things that Christianity (with its focus on faith at the path to salvation) could learn from Judaism (with its focus on the practice of worship). I love learning about esoteric Jewish traditions, and I love how she claims to have tried a lot of them, in the charming, random way young people wander into trying things.

I wonder if it seems silly to people, how much I like nun books and C.S. Lewis and Lauren Winner, when I'm not even remotely a Christian, not even at all.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Preached At

Anyone reading this is probably tired of hearing about Till We Have Faces, but I like it and am annoyed by it and am thinking about it, so that's what I'm writing about.

The ending of this book is really irritating to me, in the same way that a lot of proselytizing is irritating to people who aren't already sold. He sets up this great story of a woman who is angry at the gods, and telling her life story as an indictment of them. The big issue it comes down to is that, as she (Oruel) puts it, she was faced with a riddle and made the best answer she could with the information she had, and, when she was proven wrong, she and her sister Psyche were punished for it. What happens, in essence, is that she is told that something exists that she cannot see or perceive in any way. She believes that her sister is wrong--mad or deceived--and acts on this, attempting to bring her sister home and save her.

Based on this, her claim seems like a pretty fair indictment to me. The book supports it all the way through, until the last part. At the end, it is revealed to Oruel and to us, that her real motivation was not compassion for her sister but jealousy of her sister's love. And that all her urge to save her sister before, all her standing by the evidence of her senses, was just stubborn denial of what she must have known in her heart to be true.

I hate this. It's like that old, irritating psychoanalytical issue, where if you deny that you have had a trauma, you're repressing it, or resisting the therapeutic process or something. No, honey, sometimes not being traumatized is just based on bad things not having happened to you.

So the whole book just dismisses the fact that, given the information she had, Orual was right to try to save her sister--that she had no earthly reason to believe that Psyche wasn't living on an exposed mountainside in the winter--in favor of the idea that if you don't grasp what the gods want, then it's because YOU are wrong and stubborn and have not yet overcome what is bad in your heart. Good people believe, it's as simple as that, I guess.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Various and Sundry Miscellanea

For the record, I read over my list from 2007, and I read a total of 122 books last year. These are the books I logged in my journal; not all of them made it up here--I don't blog everything I read, it would get draggy. That number does include audiobooks that I listened to. And for the record, one of those was an abridged version--I know, I know, I hated to do it. But in the end I'm glad I did, because five more minutes of that book would have been a hard thing to deal with. But now that I know there are authors out there who have internet access, for crying out loud, I'm feeling cautious. Oh, hell, it was Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear. Which was intriguing in concept, and good as far as it went, as sciencey political dramas go, but which reminded me of Michael Crichton in how it dealt with a lot of minutia and then danced away from the interesting reveal at the end that is the whole point of the book.

Anyway, there's that. Also, I went to the library today. Jenny McCarthy--yes, the hot chick in the baby tee from Singled Out who got famous for belching--has written a memoir about raising a son with autism, and I can't even wait to read it. Based on a limited amount of information about her (see previous sentence), there are a lot of places where I wouldn't feel comfortable following Jenny McCarthy. But there are so many moments to laugh at in autism, even while you're crying--I'm really curious to see where she goes with this, and what kind of a writer she is, and what kind of observer and humorist.

I got a big book of Mark Twain essays, for which I can blame no one but Lynne (I will draw the line, though, at reading about Irish dance halls). I liked Huck Finn in high school, but lately have found myself unable to get into his novels for various reasons. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is so offhand as to be boring, and so clever as to cease being clever. The Prince and the Pauper just couldn't hold me. And I've seen a copy of Life on the Mississippi from a distance, and that's plenty for me, thank you. I hope the essays will be more consumable.

I got a bunch of other stuff that I'm excited about, too, but I'm also exhausted and going to bed soon. But I will close with this: Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis. I've gotten past the preachy part and am loving it again. But I'm coming into the home stretch and I have a strong feeling he's going to start preaching again. I hope he can hold it together anyway.

So we plunge into 2008 with a fresh round of stuff to read. I need to get a lot done in January, because I get much, much busier at the end of the month, and my reading time will be sadly shortened!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Why Is There Always a Sequel?

Ellen Emerson White wrote The President's Daughter, which was a classic sixth grade read, about a teenager whose mother is elected as the first female president. Sort of a classic that mostly flies under the radar.

Life Without Friends is not something I'd heard of till recently, but I've been hearing some buzz; apparently, this is one of those books that is a huge favorite of anyone who has actually read it. So I read it today.

What was really exciting about this book is how it took a standard "teenager in over head" type plot that could have been a thriller or a deep drama and set that up as the backstory, proceeding to tell a more overlooked story. In the first chapter we learn how the main character fell in with a dangerous crowd after her mother died and she came to Boston to live with her father and his new wife. Her new boyfriend becomes a drug dealer, beats her up, and eventually kills some people. The story starts after his hearing, and it's not about any of those things. It's about someone who's messed everything up and been through the wringer, and now has to show up at school every day, where every single person despises her. It's about having no friends, not knowing your family, and kind of hating yourself. It's a story about healing, and there are no easy outs here.

I really enjoyed this book. I thought it did something difficult--gave you a surly, angry, messed-up character, and made you like her, sympathize with her, and root for her.

So now I'm eying Friends for Life, which appears to be a sequel to this book. I'm torn about sequels--well, mostly I love them. When I find a book I like, I'm excited to hear there are more out there by the same author with some of the same elements. The only problem is that they sometimes become a burden (because they make my damned list longer!).

Looking more carefully at Friends for Life, though, I think it's more of a companion book--it's the story of the boyfriend-murderer and the girl who was looking too closely at his drug habits, and basically how everything went down that eventually led to Beverly's experiences in the book I just finished. And I think, if this is going to be some sort of murder-thriller, that I don't really need to put it on my list.

So this is part of what I hope will be a good New Year's process for me; allowing myself to lay things aside, relax, set aside anxiety at a lack of completion. We'll see how long this lasts.