Thursday, December 31, 2009

End of the Year Round Up

So, I was thinking of doing a top ten list, but I just can't do those. Top ten books I'd want to read again? Books I had fun reading? Books I would take to an island with me? Books that changed my life? No, no.

Instead: ten notable books that I read this year. Not that they were published this year, just ten books that I read this year that I would like to mention, made note of, nod to. It's an amalgam of books I'm glad I've read and ones I'd like to read again, books that made me laugh and books that I have respect for.

In no particular order:

1) Fool, by Christopher Moore. Gritty and smart and fast and so amazingly funny. King Lear's fool is holding his small world--and the kingdom--together by the skin of his teeth.

2) The Safe-Keeper's Secret, by Sharon Shinn. So unremarkable I can only say that this book is on the list because I read it months ago and just cannot stop thinking about it. It beat out a lot of more action-packed and popular books, because it was so totally engrossing. The daughter of a safe-keeper--someone who will keep any secret told to her, forever--is trying to figure out what it takes to be a safe-keeper herself.

3) Bloody Jack, by L.A. Meyer. The whole series could stand in here; I can't believe I read them all this year. There is no romp quite like it--the story of a ten year old street urchin who changes her name from Mary to Jack and signs on as a ship's boy in Her Majesty's Royal Navy. Everyday sailing, wild adventures, and a secret to keep. All the swashbuckling you could hope for.

4) The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner. I put these together, because I just couldn't choose one over the other. The series begins with The Thief, but I think these stories contain more intrigue and complexity, and I like them better. The crafty character who's one step ahead of everyone else--great stuff.

5) American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld. I would never in a million years have believed that you could make me understand how a reasonable person could find herself married to someone (exactly) like George W. Bush, but here you have it. A lovely, sympathetic account of a very reasonable woman whose life is shaped by the man she married.

6) The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. A feel-good page turner about a reporter in the late 1940s corresponding with, visiting, and writing the story of the residents of the island of Guernsey, which lies between England and France and was occupied by the Nazis during the war.

7) City of Thieves, by David Benioff. Another war story, somehow, this one in St. Petersburg during the Seige of Leningrad. The balance of humor and pathos, light and dark, hope and grim, horrifying reality, is just amazing. Two young men, condemned under military law for breaking curfew, will be spared if they can find the general a dozen eggs--in a city where thousands are starving.

8) The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart. I would have said that you couldn't write a book for kids this young that is this complex. But I would be wrong. Four brilliant kids, their mentors, and a conspiracy to take over the world that only they can solve. Plus puzzles.

9) In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan. I can't say I didn't already know what he had to say, but I was impressed with how effectively he presented his arguments in such a short book. It's laid out very sensibly. This is a topic that I think a lot about, especially about the institutional changes that need to happen in the world we live in.

10) Chalice, by Robin McKinley. Another one that I just can't stop thinking about. I'll tell you, I'm not even fully sure this is a great book. It might be kind of clunky. But there is something about the quiet stillness of the story, the character who's balancing her small life, politics that she's been sucked into, and the lives that are on the line and in her hands, that just won't let me go. I want to read it again.

There you have it. When I went through my book journal, these are the ones that jumped out at me, the ones I wanted to point out. Some general statistics: I read 104 books total this year, which is an average of about 8 per month. A really surprising majority of them were young adult or children's books, and a lot were fantasy. I knew I read a lot of that, but this year, I think it was a much higher proportion even than usual.

Except for the series that I'm eager to follow, I think I've begun to swing the other way. Not that I'm not going to keep reading a lot of these, and not that I don't still love them. But if I have time, I think it's time to get into something meatier. Even for light reading, there are more substantial choices out there. I'm about to enter a Personal Library Renaissance. I've got a great queue in place. I hope I have enough time to keep up!

Happy New Year, everyone!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Holiday Greetings

I'm not getting as much reading done this Christmas as I normally do, partly because the baby has to be looked after all the time. Even last year, mostly you just had to sit near him and occasionally dangle something over him. This year, there's so much following and restraining and fishing things out of his mouth, even loving grandparents can only go on for so long.

So I'm still reading the same two books I've been on for a while: Terry Pratchett's Soul Music, which is okay (which is practically a negative review for a Discworld book) and Chris Bohjalian's Hangman, which is actually a pretty good horror-type story so far, and pretty unlike all of his other books. You can feel how young he was as a writer--his style is definitely there, but not as tight--but the plot is totally different from what made him famous. I'm really enjoying it, actually.

I got a couple of great books for Christmas, including the new book of stories, Fire, by Peter Dickinson and Robin McKinley (their previous one, Water, was excellent) and my own copy of Poison Study, which is so fun, and which I'll probably have to lend to Brenda if she's accepting recommendations from me. Also, Mike got My Life in France, by Julia Child, which has me pretty excited, too.

I really want to get a lot more reading done on this vacation. So I'm going to go curl up with the Bohjalian horror and get creeped out until the extended in-laws arrive in a few hours for a huge meal.

And in that spirit: Happy Christmas to all!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

How Many Wookiees Does It Take To Screw In A Light Bulb?

I'm kind of writing this post out of a sense of duty, I guess. I mean, I'm reading Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking, which is a memoir-type book that's actually based on her one woman show. So it's almost like reading a script, but not quite.

It's hard to judge this as a book. It's quite clearly a transcription of something spoken, and like a lot of things like this, it loses something in the translation. It's amazing how much a live performance can carry things you don't expect it to. Not just things like humor, though of course punch lines are funnier delivered out loud. But transitions--God, the transitions! Many parts of this just seem to be a string of almost entirely unrelated anecdotes. I really think those parts would play better in person, too--as though each one called the others to mind. You don't really need to understand the connection, if you see the actor making the connection.

What it comes down to, though, is that I don't think it's as funny as it's meant to be. Again, I think watching the performance would have been much better. But I feel like a tragicomedy has to be really comic to let me laugh through the tragedy. And, even though Carrie Fisher's life isn't actually that tragic, the right balance of comedy just isn't there.

I will say, though, that I'm totally going to read Postcards from the Edge now. So she's done at least something right.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

In Defense of Literature

In the kind of situation where everything comes together in a cosmic one-ness, it turns out that How I Became a Famous Novelist ended up being a searing indictment of my attitude toward books in general. The narrator--who was ridiculously over the top in his scorn for literary writing--gets some major, serious comeuppance. Essentially, he gets schooled.

The big theme of the book is about truth. It's about how books tell the truth, and how, even when you flop at that, it's a worthwhile endeavor. And it's even about how people who write popular mysteries and Tom Clancy type thrillers are, at their best, trying to get something right, trying to tell something that they believe in--not literally, but in essence. That part, about how truth relates to fiction and how they're not opposites but close relatives, is so well said in this blog post by The Intern that I won't bother to remake her point. You should really read that post.

So this book--which is hilarious, and you should totally read it if you like books, because it's funny and the author is on the side of truth and justice--makes a point that I found really hit home. Basically, it's about a guy who calls bullshit on "lyrical prose" and whips together some junk that sounds like a bestseller. And lo and behold, it becomes a bestseller. But somehow, almost everyone sees through him. He's like a literary sociopath, faking all the things that normal people really feel and believe.

Now, I've always been up against this. I often find "literary fiction" to be like abstract art. I can see why Jackson Pollack is famous--look at one of his most famous pieces and they're truly beautiful. But if you take a middle-of-the-road piece of abstract art--something a museum might pay just a few thousand dollars for--and put it up next to something that someone slapped together in five minutes without thinking about it too hard, and I probably won't be able to tell the difference.

Now, this is probably less a comment on the art than it is on me as a viewer. But can you blame me for not wanting to hang it in my house?

So: do I dislike, do I scorn literary fiction? I can see how I come off over the top in this as I do in--well, most everything, really. But no--some of my favorite books are things like Cloud Atlas, Lying Awake, Knowledge of Angels. How do you even define literary fiction, anyway--non-genre? No, I'm not that demanding.

So here's what I like: a story in which something happens. This does not have to be a big something: in most nun books, they just pray and eat and chat and occasionally work in a hospital. The something can be entirely internal. But there must be significant change, significant motion in the story--the story must be driving at something.

What I don't care for: lots and lots of minutely observed detail about the lives of normal people with nothing much going on. (The exception to this is if it's really funny.) I enjoy good writing, but the perfect word choice doesn't keep me in a book. It's what occurs in the book--not just epic struggles or fast-paced events, but people doing and feeling and trying and realizing and deciding.

And there has to be a reason. Even if I can't put it into words, I have to feel like I understand why you're telling me this story, and why you think, it's worth it for me to read it. Maybe I'll disagree with you, and that's fine, but if I don't even understand what you think is important about the story, then I might call foul.

So I think my point is, I'm no Pete Tarslaw (he's the main character, read the book). Also, you should really, REALLY read How I Became a Famous Author, by Steve Hely. Superb stuff.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

In Which Literature Is Mocked

Steve Hely is a very, very clever man. Sometimes, when I say this, it's an indictment, but so far, I'm riding high on his cleverness. My only worry is that, after this satire, I might never be able to read a literary novel again.

Sure, he deconstructs the modern "literary" novel with rules like "Include obscure plant names," and "Evoke confusing sadness at the end," and "Prose must be lyrical" ("lyrical" being defined as "resembling bad poetry"). These are things that I've pretty much observed myself. And yes, he takes a cynical view of the writer himself, pointing out that there are few better ways for a hairy old man in flannel to get young college girls to follow you around and maybe sleep with you.

But I think what's slaying me--both in the best of ways and in the risk of spoiling me for real books--is in his descriptions of the numerous fictitious novels that he mentions when his character walks through a bookstore. Some of the descriptions and titles are so on the nose that they're not really satire, just made up: Sageknights of Darkhorn, in which "Astrid Soulblighter attempts to reclaim the throne from the wicked Scarkrig clan," or Nick Boyle's Shock Blade: Lynchpin, in which "Admiral Chao threatens to destroy the Internet and the ShockBlade team is forced to ally with their Chinese rivals."

This was brought into sharper relief after I read the fictional NYT Best Sellers list in the book and then went poking around in Audible looking for some new audiobooks. The one sentence blurbs started to run together and blew my mind. Here, let me show you. Which of the below are made up and which are real?

"When Pippa Dunn, adopted as an infant and raised terribly British, discovers that her birth parents are from the American South, she finds that 'culture clash' has layers of meaning she never imagined."

"On a journey across the Midwest, a downsized factory worker named Gabriel touches the lives of several people wounded by life."

"On Nantucket, a beautiful nun who's given up on love finds herself attracted to a psychic who just may be a dangerous arsonist."

"Cassandra's much-loved grandmother, Nell, has just died, and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything known and dear to her."

Okay, maybe you could tell. But they're close. He's got a great ear for this stuff. And then, when the author starts slipping the narrator's "rules for a best seller" into the text (like, "during slow parts, include descriptions of elaborate meals"), my mind is just blown.

I can see people finding the humor to be too far on the mocking side. And I think the cynicism that the narrator ascribes to the idea of being a writer is harsh. But it's mostly pretty clear where the author's opinions and the narrator's diverge. And also, seriously, I'm laughing out loud.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Last One, I Swear

Okay, I finished SuperFreakonomics last night, and I found an anecdote the demonstrates my frustration with economic thought (as demonstrated in pop econ books). The anecdote is about monkeys, but the topic is actually beside the point, so I'll make the point without spoiling the book.

You flip a coin. If it's heads, you give your subject $1. If it's tails, you give them $2. Simple. Here's the twist: in one scenario, you put $1 on the table. If it's heads, they get that $1; if it's tails, you add $1 and they get both. In the other scenario, you lay $2 on the table. If it's heads, you take $1 away and they get the remaining one; if it's tails, they get both.

Now, it's very clear that these are the same scenario, and you get the same chance of getting the same amount of money. But people (and monkeys) prefer to play the game where $2 means you got a bonus dollar, rather than where $1 means you were penalized a dollar. This is irrational.

Well, yes, of course. That's what rational means, and I don't deny it. You'd think, though, with all their talk about 'incentives,' that they'd look for the incentive that's causing that decision. Something like the idea that hoping and being disappointed is a more uncomfortable feeling than having low expectations and having them met instead of exceeded. Maybe it's just that that's the province of psychologists, but for people so intensely interested in incentives and how we're shaped by them, they stop looking at the non-material things we care about mighty quickly.

And that's all I have to say about that.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Knee Jerk Liberal?

So I've been putting off reading the end of SuperFreakonomics, because the chapter I'm on, the climate change chapter, has been pissing me off. It's the same thing that nags at me about the rest of the book, but I do find myself getting more irritable about it. I'm kind of startled by my reaction, actually--is it because I consider their statistical claims to be more misleading here, or because the issue is more important? Or just because of their somewhat sycophantic fawning over the scientists who claim that climate change is really just a nutty nutty fad that can be fixed by adding more chemicals to the atmosphere.

And this is the thing. I have to assume that these very famous people--an academic and a journalist, no less--put a lot more research into this book than my instincts can counteract. And I even buy into the fact that the worst case scenarios regarding climate change are very unlikely, and that a lot of information we get about the environment is intended to scare us.

That makes perfect sense. Because the truth is just as ugly, but not as startling to a layman. If you hear about breeds of bugs that are dying in the rain forest, you don't freak out like you do about polar bears, or even bees. And if you don't freak out, you don't do anything about it. The information I get is intended to convey the message: this is a big deal. So I don't fault anyone for being "alarmist."

But let's take the idea the authors present of someone's plan to counter global warming by injecting chemicals into the atmosphere that duplicate a volcanic eruption. Major volcanic eruptions are followed by cool periods, because of the matter that gets up into the stratosphere and does whatever it is--diffuses sunlight, I suppose. They explain it in the book. So they want to counter global warming by duplicating that.

Now, let's think about that. Instead of stopping these effects, we'll do more crazy things to this incredibly complex system that is the environment and hope that there's no fallout from THIS plan. It reminds me of the fact that the same guy who invented leaded gasoline also invented aerosol spray cans. And you know he was so proud of himself, because the world knew he'd done good things.

Also, they criticize the alarmists on one page, pointing out that even the best climate models aren't great, because the system that is the environment is SO complex, and then then a few pages later they defend an idea that I think is quite counterintuitive using evidence based on--wait for it--climate models.

Now, I'm about to read their defense, the part of the chapter where they say, "some people call this idea crazy," and then go on to counter some points. Maybe they'll put my fears to rest. But I doubt it, for the same reason I'm not sold on drunk driving being better than drunk walking, or that a good deed done to feel good about yourself (even if no one else knows) is not truly altruistic.

Is this book making me cranky? Sort of, but just in a venting way. Until the environment chapter, I was having a blast.

Update: In my defense, it's not just my instincts that say they're wrong about global warming. Here are some links about what's wrong with Chapter 5 of SuperFreakonomics.

William M. Connolley
Tim Lambert
Joe Romm Part I
Joe Romm Part II
Union of Concerned Scientists

I admit that I got all these references from each other, and that I don't know the players in this field, and so have only heard of the Union of Concerned Scientists. But my point is that there's a lot of debunking going on right now.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Discount Toothpaste

I had the intriguing experience recently of reading a children's book--not a picture book, a middle grade chapter book--that my husband had just read. He doesn't usually read all the YA and kids' stuff that I do--except the picture books we read to the baby, of course.

Anyway, it was a book that he had found at the library because he remembered it from childhood--The Toothpaste Millionaire, by Jean Merrill. It's about a kid who realizes that toothpaste costs too much, and that you can make it at home for about two cents a tube. So he makes it, and sells it, and everyone buys it, and the operation grows till he's running a big company.

It was kind of awesome. It was a little clunky, with a lot of math, and the story kind of goes off the rails at the end as he begins running other toothpaste companies out of business, but in general, most of the story is just about how hard work and a good business head will get you far in this world. It's a big how-to book, and there's nothing as much fun as a story full of how-to.

Mike, on the other hand, put it down halfway through. He found it boring. I asked, "Well, did you get to the part where his friend goes to an auction and buys 50 gross of empty tubes, but she doesn't know how much a gross in and thinks she has 50 dozen instead of like 7000 and they have to find a machine to fill them?"

Yes. Yes, he did.

"How could you put it down there? That's the most exciting bit!"

Apparently, books written for 10-year-olds are an acquired taste. If you love them, though, this book is kind of fun.