Friday, May 29, 2009

No Spoilers, No Spoilers, No Spoilers....

I finished The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, recently, and I loved it and think everyone should read it. But I have an issue with the very last chapter, the ending, that I can't discuss because I will spoil it for everyone. So I'm going to sit here silently on the subject and, in fact, tease you all with this little post.

I also just finished Deep and Dark and Dangerous, by Mary Downing Hahn, who wrote one of my fifth-grade-self's favorite books, Wait Till Helen Comes. Deep and Dark is pretty much the exact same book in many ways, though there are interesting lessons in the behavior of the adults in the book. They pretty much do not have their crap together, any of them. I guess this is often the way in a YA book--otherwise how would the kids be dealing with problems that are way beyond them? but the flawed adults in this book added a really nice layer of depth to what was otherwise an almost painfully predictable ghost story. I mean, really--if I was 13 I would totally have figured out the identity of the irritating neighbor who keeps showing up when there are no grown ups around.

I'd also like to point out that any member of the Babysitters' Club would have handled that situation so much better than the main character. Ali kept yelling at the annoying kid, buying into the dynamic she set up, instead of taking charge like a good babysitter does. Kristy Thomas would have wiped up the floor with that brat, make no mistake.

I'm reading The Queen of Attolia now, which is the sequel to The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner. I've only read about 40 pages, so I can't really spoil it, can I? I mean, is it spoiling to tell something that happens in the first 40 pages? Because I really want to tell. I mean, it's Eugenides vs. the evil Queen, and something shocking happens, and....okay. I'm restraining. I don't even want to ruin the first sequence for you, the first five pages, which is a wicked chase scene and you should really read it, really.

Monday, May 25, 2009


I hit my theoretical average of 8 books already this month. Then I went a little nutty and started 5 new books today. I was trying to decide which to read next, and apparently the answer is all of them.

More later.

Oh, but the Koontz book was a huge disappointment. Just bleck.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

More Dean Koontz!

I'm cruising through this book, and while I won't call it astronomically bad, I'm finding it kind of a fascinating ride, in a car wreck kind of way.

First, I am being forced to recall Koontz's fascination with architecture. Most of his books take place in southern California, and he's always talking about Spanish styles, Tudors, neoclassical architecture, with everything surrounded by bougainvillea. I don't quite know what bougainvillea is, but I'm surprised it's possible to see the state of California under the blankets of it that populate Koontz books.

He is also definitely very excited about the research he does. When the guy has blood drawn, the author uses the technical name for the little tube that they take the sample in, as well as for the part of the syringe that it attaches to. I was able to glean what he was talking about pretty easily, but it's such a cute affectation, like an eighth grader using a fifty cent word that he just looked up. At another point, the guy has a little twitch in his eyelid (the girl thinks he's winking at her, which results in a meet-cute), and he uses the technical name for that, too. This one, though, he had to explain, resulting in the sentence, "...on the afternoon that she had met him, thirteen months previously, he had been afflicted with a stubborn case of myokymia, uncontrollable twitching of the eyelid." Learning the word myokymia, I'm sorry to say has not improved my life at all so far.

The other thing he's doing is going HEAVY with the Poe references. We've got a guy with a heart condition who's been hearing a weird tapping noise and having paranoid moments. It's finally come to the point where Koontz writes that he suspects someone of following him around "for the purpose of tormenting him with the rapping, the soft rapping, the soft rap-rap-rapping, only this and nothing more." Followed by a paragraph describing the lub-dub of his unhealthy heart in telltale detail.

Oh, oh, and also! All the trappings of wealth I was talking about earlier? It's one thing to have a private plane and call a limo service all the time. But every time the car service comes to take him to or from the airport, it sends a superstretch limousine. I mean, why? It's one guy, driving to the airport. He spends all the time staring out the window--it's not like he's into the champagne or taking a nap on the huge seats. I really don't think I'm supposed to find this showy wealth as creepy as I do.

On the plus side--the whole thing where I thought he was being paranoid? He was being paranoid. So maybe, at the end, the character will realize he's also throwing his money around conspicuously and having Edgar Allen Poe channeling moments. Maybe this is an intricately crafted, mind blowing roller coaster ride of a novel. Hehe. I'm pretty sure not, though.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Grown-Up Books of My Childhood

You cannot tell me this is not the worst cover ever. Well, maybe not the worst EVER (I'm accepting additional nominees--with links--in the comments section), but really, just awful.

I read a lot of Dean Koontz when I was young. I remember in seventh grade, he was THE author to be reading--grown up books, novels, come on. Everyone had a copy of Whispers or Watchers or one of his other one-word sometimes-supernatural thrillers on top of their social studies book and notebook. Him and V.C. Andrews, baby; we were not YA readers.

I read almost everything he'd written on through high school, and then a couple of his newer ones in college. And somehow, I've moved on, and he keeps cranking these books out.

I think they're getting worse. It's always tough to go back to something you've read in childhood, but it's even harder to move on with it. Mercedes Lackey and I, for example, have grown apart. I loved her first books when I was a teenager; when I go back and read them now, I still love them, but partly in a nostalgic way. I'm a more critical reader, and they're simple books--satisfying in many ways, childish in many others. Her current books are much more complex and very different, and I have to admit I don't like them as much. She's retained her fondness for a firm grounding in fairness--seriously, her world is so fair that if you get rained on, you're likely to find a quarter in a puddle. I can't count her uses of "she would pay for that later," because anyone could do any physical feat--it's just really tiring. In her older books, this sense of fairness was simple and charming. In her newer ones, the world has to twist itself around to make things work out, and it's just weird.

But I'm talking about Dean Koontz. I just reread a few pages of Watchers, the one about the superintelligent dog. It's definitely still good. Maybe a little overly fond of lavishing you with the details that his research has uncovered on things like how to get a fake ID or how a vet's office works, but overall good and well-paced and charming.

But oh, Your Heart Belongs to Me. It's hard to explain--it's not as charming a story, but a puppy who can spell things with Scrabble tiles is hard to beat. No, it's more that the details, the characterizations, are supposed to be appealing to me, and are failing. He gives you these details about his super-rich main character--his elaborate garage, his swim trunk collection--that I think are supposed to endear me--doesn't he have good taste? Isn't he down to earth?--that actually do the exact opposite. A 12-car garage is not endearing, even if it's charmingly outfitted. Anyone who describes his swim trunks as having "a palm tree motif" is irritating. That's not how I'm supposed to feel.

I'm not yet sure if I'm supposed to think the main character's motivation is nonsensical. I mean, he says himself that he's being irrational, but in the way you apologize to a store clerk for bothering them when you're really requesting that they do their job, thankyouverymuch. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to follow him down this irrational path, or keep thinking that maybe he's going crazy. I hope the latter, because that's what I do think.

Also, almost no paragraph is more than two sentences long. There were four pages of two-sentence-and-under paragraphs in a row just a minute ago. No dialogue. Urgh.

We all remember the good old days, though, right? Lightning, that was great. Dark Rivers of the Heart. Twilight Eyes. Man, those were the days.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Chuck Palnichuck

I have never quite been able to keep Chuck Palahniuk's name quite straight, so I always think of him as Chuck Palnichuck. It's a little embarrassing, but there it is. It reminds me of my friend Becky, who used to make up normal names for all the characters when reading a Russian novel. This makes total sense to me--even in your head, don't you call them "R-somebody" and "the B guy" when you can't pronounce their names?

This is neither here nor there. I'm listening to Survivor as an audiobook, and I was really liking it till it got all Palnichuck on me. The only other book I've read of his was Fight Club, and I liked it. This book seemed somewhat different at first--not a lot, but enough. The story was interesting, and the weird, disaffected main character hadn't totally alienated me yet.

But now we've hit the point where he's reciting long, long lists of factoids that somehow relate to the particular nature of his disaffectation, and it's reminding me very much of the little indignities Tyler Durden inflicted on the world. And of all the violent chemical knowledge he had, and all of the gritty details that he likes to give to make a clear impression of the world. This staccato recitation of how to clean up the remnants of violence with common household substances is...well, it's tedious. It's so stylized, so self-aware. And it's so much more about the author than the narrator.

I guess that's what it comes down to. How much of a book should be about a book, and how much should it be about the author? Not that an author has to do something different every time. But if what I'm watching is the author create something, instead of a story unfold, I have to love the author. And I just don't love Palnichuck. Sorry.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Some Further Points on Food

I'm glad to hear that I don't sound like a reactionary crackpot when I talk about food politics, because I have a little more to say now that I've finished the book. I think I've figured out in a little more detail what's missing from the advice I'm reading, what the hurdle is.

Pollan and Kingsolver both have lots of great advice about what a healthy food culture looks like and how it works. What they have no suggestions for are the steps from here to there. They talk about our broken diet, culture, relationship with food, and I'm all with them, yes, yes. But it is MY culture, the one I've grown up in, and it's no easier to let go of a crappy culture than a healthy one. So yes, I should eat more whole foods and cook more myself. And Kingsolver even offers recipes and menus, which are incredibly useful even if I never use them, because they make the theory concrete. I've eaten out of the grocery store all my life--and I grew up on a vegetable farm--so I can barely picture the day to day of this diet they're espousing. But Animal, Vegetable, Miracle gives you enough examples that you can maybe grasp the concept.

Gardening is a great example. You should plant a garden. According to Pollan, with just a couple of hours a week of work you'll get in touch with your food supply, have access to great food, and have all the fun of gardening which is so much fun! I'm sorry, but did I mention that I grew up on a farm? If I was going to love gardening, believe me, I'd be there by now. My aunt Charli is always trying to convince me, not just that I could learn to love it, but that I DO love it and just don't know it yet. Because it's so innately fun and fulfilling. No, it's dirty and boring. And a couple of hours a week does not take into account the extra showers and laundry because of all the dirt. And the talk of fun does not take into account the work that needs doing even if it's going to rain all week, or be over 90 degrees every day, or if you're just insanely busy.

So yes, I know I should plant a garden. But the hurdles to me planting a garden are more than just 1) space, 2) seeds, 3) go for it! They're about how I live my life and how I want to live my life. The same is true for cooking. I wish I was someone who loved preparing elaborate meals made of fresh, delicious veggies. I wish that was how I longed to spend my free time. It isn't. So is this advice that I should do it anyway, spend my time doing something I don't love because it's good for me? Or is it that I should just love it? I hope it's the latter, but if it is, I need advice on how. And if I could just start enjoying things that are good for me, well, a whole lot of other hurdles would be removed.

Okay, I do sound a bit like a crackpot in this post. I think that the gardening thing got my dander up, because my life has been full of people who love to garden and cannot comprehend that someone might find it tedious. But I think my point is valid: we don't just have bad habits. It's been generations now--we have bad folkways. And they're a lot harder to change. Maybe the best I can do is raise my son differently. I'm just going to let all those gardeners in my life loose on him and see how he turns out. If he eats like my grandmother, he'll smell funny and live to be 95.

(With apologies to Charli and Grammy, who really, really love(d) their plants.)
Edited to clarify earlier that I do not espouse gardening to nongardeners. I am not that cruel.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

I Choose To Miss the Point

So I'm reading In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollen, and it's very good. It gets at a lot of the same things that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle did, only through more of a journalist's lens--analysis of the history and science of the thing, rather than personal experience and memoir. I am familiar with the argument, but I do really like his writing style, and he makes some specific points that are interesting.

The idea, for example, that food is a complex system, and by trying to thing of it only biochemically, we're missing a lot of the point. Besides all the cultural and sensual things going on with eating, there is the simple fact that food is not a pile of nutrients, but a complex system. We don't have the capacity to fully understand it, so the rules we've created around it never seem to work.

In spite of all this interesting things I'm reading and learning about, I'm going to address this subject from a different point of view, one he hasn't yet looked at. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle had this problem, and until I get to the end and read his advice on how to eat, I won't know if he does, but I'm curious. This is the lack of direct, practical advice.

Now, it's all about advice. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Good stuff. Even better: shop at the farmer's markets. Cook whole foods, not processed. These are useful tips. What they won't help me figure out, however, is how to do this without it taking over your entire life. When Barbara Kingsolver did it, it DID take over her life--they spend a lot of time canning, freezing, baking, farming. She's a bestselling author; I'm sure she has the time. Most of us don't.

The whole foods movement is, on some level, a feminist issue. In a lot of the families I know, the men do their share of the cooking, but let's be honest. In most of the households in the US, it's going to be the woman who adds baking bread, freezing vegetables, or any other food work to her list of things to do. And whole food is more work; making chicken stock vs. buying a box of broth? Rolling out any kind of dough, from pie to pasta? Even driving out of your way to pick up your food at the farm or the market, rather than the grocery store (where you still have to get shampoo and light bulbs)? All these things are going to add a lot of time to my already crowded week.

I would really like someone to sell me a more wholesome food lifestyle that leaves some room for the rest of my existing lifestyle. I'd even take an acknowledging nod in the direction of the things I do manage--getting my veggies from the farm, doing more of my shopping "around the edges" of the grocery store, eating out less.

What it comes down to is that the food culture in America needs to change, and that's going to have to be part of a bigger change, a reprioritization. And all I can offer right now, in my life, are baby steps. So--I made quiche tonight. Good for me!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Motherhood Is Kicking My Ass

When you're up at 3am because the baby is crying and you're trying to teach him to calm himself down, so you are only going in every five-ish minutes, so you don't want to go to sleep because getting up every five minutes for two hours is too brutal, so you're reading in bed at 3am--at those moments, you can be somewhat critical of a parenting memoir. That's why last night (technically this morning), I put down It Sucked and Then I Cried, by Heather Armstrong, and finished up Under the Jolly Roger, by L.A. Meyer. That was an awesome book about pirating, which you should read after you've finished the first two in the series, starting with Bloody Jack.

When I came back to It Sucked and Then I Cried this morning, after a short sleep and a shorter nap, I was not quite as ready to sell my beloved son for a pudding pop and a bottle of NyQuil. I read, and I love Heather's writing (I feel that I can call her Heather, since I read her blog and that's what she calls herself). And I didn't mind at all that most of the content was from the blog--in fact, I appreciate the amount of work she put into making it come together in chapters instead of keeping it short, distinct essays.

She's hilarious, and a great storyteller/anecdotist. (My spellchecker is accepting that word, so I don't think I made it up.) I'm a little disappointed by the book, though, for a couple of reasons that I think are tied into the Rampaging Wakefulness I went through last night. Mostly, it comes down to this: I wish the book had plumbed a little deeper than the blog posts.

I think I wrote this summer about how I see blogging as a very specific style of writing. Hers are funny--even when she's talking about things that are important and difficult, there's a thread of funny that I don't know if she could lose if she tried, and I think that's great. But I found that the laughs that worked so well online kind of kept the book from coming together. The truth--emotional and factual--of a lot of the stories are hard to get at past the hyperbolic humor and caricatures.

That might be okay in another book. I didn't see the movie Life is Beautiful, but I suspect it's a similar thing--tragedy told through humor. The difference, though, is that we all know the tragedy there--nobody hasn't seen a dozen holocaust movies, nobody doesn't know the horror story. This is why the warmth and humor can be transcendant--it does something different with something familiar.

Her story, the "motherhood, especially early motherhood, can be painful and soul-wrenching" story, hasn't been told enough. I wanted to read that story, I wanted to hear the voice of this person saying, yes, it's that hard. And she says it, but then she giggles because she just said the word "hard," and I feel a little let down.

I think it came together for me in the chapter in which she enters the hospital, near the end of the book. I realized that each of the anecdotes, while told in a sequential and narrative way, is emotionally separate from the others. She says that she cried, threw things, felt a mess. But then she tells other anecdotes that don't have any real emotional weight either way, and you're not sure how this relates to either the glory or the horror that she's going through. When she goes to the hospital, it's almost a surprise, because you didn't feel the escalation coming throughout the story. She talks about her suffering, but the sense of it doesn't permeate it.

Maybe I just had very specific expectations, because I'm a new mom and I've been struggling. I don't have the illnesses that she has always struggled with, but this job is not easy, and sometimes the intensity of my feelings, the question of where my life went, the agony and the ecstasy--never forget the ecstasy, even when someone's peeing on you--is overwhelming. Heather's a great writer, and I was really hoping to read something here where someone wrapped her arms around these feelings without sentiment or dry academic language, but with humor and sympathy.

But she went a different way--this is a humorist's book about a serious topic. And it does that job well. It's just not the job I was expecting.

Monday, May 11, 2009


If you lurve Marcus Flutie with the all-consuming lurve that most people devote to their handsome, charming, slightly nerdy dentists, then you should read Perfect Fifths. I've never been his #1FANgrrl, so whatever. There was way too much poetry in this book.

But, if you can read it in three hours, you can mostly skip the poetry (at least skim it). In that case, it might be worth it just to complete the series. I mean, it was only occasionally painful.

I guess what it comes down to is that I was never in this series for the love story, but for the coming of age story. There's pretty much none of that here, just the Great Romance. I am rarely driven by Great Romance.

And thus ends this adventure.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Still at Newark

I can't believe I only just realized that Megan McCafferty must have had an elite liberal arts education. It's the only place where you can come by what I have also just identified as this much postmodern use of language.

The shellfishness of selfishness. Intimidating intimations. Frankenskank. Interwenchions. This dissective use of language--let's not even get into how she constructs sentences, which I can't even pick out to quote--is why the word pomo freaks me out.

And yet, you'll notice I'm still reading. Hard.

Further Dispatches

Ugh, worse again. I don't think I could like anyone over 23 who gets that invested in haiku. Besides the fact that haiku full of clever wordplay is almost an oxymoron--it's supposed to be an image poem, just because you match their rhythm scheme doesn't make it a haiku.

Okay, I'm not actually pretentious enough to believe that. 5-7-5 for fun is fine. But please, Megan McCafferty. Stop. Being. So. Precious.

Sigh. JMLC, if anyone needs me to spoil it for them, I will. Also, I'll admit I'm finding it a fast read--you could skim it. I think the exposition was really irritating because they worked it in as though she was thinking about everything we might want to know about her life in the stretch of time we're following her.

It's a hell of a rollercoaster ride.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Dispatch from the Newark Airport

Okay, I still won't recommend Perfect Fifths yet, but it's slightly less painful another 50 pages in. Slightly. To be fair.

(For those of you who don't know or care about the book but do know and care about me: the characters are at the Newark Airport, not me. I'm at the dining room table.)

Friday, May 08, 2009

It Hurts My Soul

Sloppy Firsts was some good stuff. Megan McCafferty did something amazing and impressive with Jessica Darling, and she sustained it through four books. Not, alas, through five.

I'm trying really hard to read Perfect Fifths, the final Jessica Darling installment, and it's just not happening for me. In fact, it's dragging me down. The interesting thing is that it's told in the third person instead of the first, but uses the exact same voice as the first four books, all of which were in journal form.

This was a major mistake on her part. I understand that she wanted to include the Marcus parts, and doing those in third person would have been fine. But the thing about Jessica is that she's a hyper, emotional, hyperemotional drama queen. Reading things from her point of view is part sympathy, part watching-NASCAR-for-the-accidents fascination. We love her through and because of her weird super-intellectual pop-culture melancoly verbosity. But when it's a third person narrator--presumably the author--talking like that, WE HATE HER.

Hate hate hate. Jessica's having a really bad day in this book, fine. It's kind of her own fault (just get up in time to catch your freaking plane, how hard is it?), but if I was inside her head, I'd be watching her self-flagellate and could forgive her. From outside her head (and yeah, I get a peek at her thoughts, but it's not the same), I have to take up the whip, because man, someone has to talk some sense into this girl.

As for Marcus, he's never quite made sense, but in that way that the male love interest never quite makes sense in stories like this. Because he's so infuriating but so perfect, sigh. He's all Zen and stuff. I actually liked his character (not as a person but as a literary accomplishment) most in Fourth Comings, when we finally see some of his flaws--his drifting through life is not about really being above it all and grounded but unable to find true meaning. It's about thinking you're all that. Anyone that Zen at 24 is an ass.

I read a very interesting story once. It was an English translation of a Czech (if I recall correctly) horror/fantasy story, which basically follows the story of Cinderella, if Cinderella was a dim and unknowing mortal whose stepfamily was older and more powerful than she could possibly imagine. The stepsister, who is the heroine of this story, is virtually immortal, and is often accused by Cinderella of being vain and shallow. The stepsister observes that she spent centuries seeking truth in philosophy and natural science, trying to understand the meaning of things through study and deep thought. And now, millenia later, the only things that bring her pleasure, that get her through the day, are the small vanities: grooming herself. Eating fine foods. Small sensualities that, in the end, mean more than all the meaning mortals search for.

What I'm getting at is that the meditating 25 year old in your sophomore class might be less typical than you are, but it doesn't make him more profound. I'm not Marcus's biggest fan.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


Trust is an weirdly important part of my relationship with a book. On an inanely literal level, that seems ironic when you're talking about fiction--I mean, they're lying to you, kid, that's what they do. But one of the problems with bad writing is that, once you realize that the author isn't going to be filling in all those inconvenient holes (inconsistencies, confusing bits, knowledge gaps), you start seeing every little problem coming from a mile away. When you trust an author to make it all work out, you often don't even notice these problems.

Real life is like that. When something unlikely happens, you don't assume that reality is coming apart. If you found a fish lying in the middle of your driveway, you would not assume that the end of the world was upon us, or that reality had ceased to make sense (I guess you might, but I wouldn't). You would assume that your neighbor's dog stole someone's dinner off the table and dropped it in your yard for some reason. Or that a teenager was vandalizing the neighborhood by throwing fish out of his car window. Maybe you couldn't even come up with an explanation, but you wouldn't doubt the fabric of reality based on this one misplaced fish.

If you trust an author, you can have that same experience--you believe there's an explanation, even if you don't know it yet. In a bad book, though, the possibility exists that no one's going to explain that fish very well. If a bad author needs a fish in your driveway, he'll put one there and not bother to give you an explanation. Or he'll give you one that you can't swallow (teenagers throwing fish out of their car windows is far more believable in real life than in fiction).

I'm reading a book right now, The Compass of the Soul, which is a sequel to something I read a few weeks ago, Beneath the Vaulted Hills. They really should not have been split into two books; because the first one did such a poor job standing on its own, I had come to completely distrust the author. Just this morning, though, one of the characters pointed out what I had considered to be a big hole--why on Earth is this other character following us on these life-threatening adventures? That whole "curiosity" thing is wearing pretty thin.

Seriously, this has changed my whole outlook on this book. Because there was no hint of skepticism about his motivations in the first book, I had assumed that I was supposed to buy the whole thing hook line and sinker. Now that someone's asked the question, a) I have a bunch of theories that I can't wait to develop (Brenda: I suspect RC is in league with the deacon!), and b) I now have a feeling that certain other things that seemed to be leading somewhere might actually be leading somewhere. And now I'm excited to find out.

So let this be a lesson: sequels are not the same as volumes of the same book. If I'm going to have to read the whole thing, I need to know that from the beginning!