Thursday, December 07, 2006

20 Years Later Their Therapy Bills Are Enormous

Another one of my pet peeves: YA books in which I need to suspend my disbelief by a noose from the chandelier to understand why, exactly, the world requires a twelve-year-old to save it.
This is done well in such book as His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (fate, coincidence). It's not done at all in books like the Blossom Culp series by Richard Peck (oh, do read these, really), in which the drama is not about saving the world. It's done pretty poorly in the book I'm reading now, The People of Sparks, by Jean DePrau. This is a sequel to The City of Ember, which had a similar flaw, though somehow not as troubling.

Really, though, a village of 300 is inundated with 400 refugees, neither group has any adult who takes even an informal leadership role. Instead, one kid starts fomenting rebellion and another couple of kids try to stop him. The adults are sheep--not in an unconvincing way, but there isn't even ONE adult who'll step up?

A Series of Unfortunate Events is the worst offender here. After the fourth time the kids foil the evil Count Olaf and expose him to their trustee Mr. Poe, you'd think the fifth time he'd believe them, or even listen to the end of their sentence, when they explain that the tall skinny guy with one eyebrow IS in fact Count Olaf again.

Harry Potter is interesting here. The first three books bothered me a bit in this regard. Why don't the adults see anything? Why don't they listen to him? He's powerless, and under attack, and it seems to fly under everyone's radar.

It's gotten much better as it moved along, though. As the stakes go up, everyone IS fighting, as hard as they can. But they can't fully protect him, which I think is a complicated and touching conflict. Trouble is finally thrust upon Harry by fate and life, instead of just by J.K. Rowling.

It's kind of sad about The People of Sparks, because the setup is interesting, and the high points are pretty exciting. But the lack of coherent adult behavior is a huge flaw, and affects the book in a lot of ways that are kind of dragging down my experience. Sorry to say.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Further Conjunctions

First: I had always known the word "decimate" to mean "destroy utterly; to wipe out." Well, what it actually refers to is the Roman practice (if that's the word I want) for the destruction of one tenth of your men. Apparently it was a punishment that was laid against the army for failure or cowardice--the men were required to kill one in ten of their own comrades. Good GOD, are you kidding me?

The source of this is Dreaming the Bull, which is one of the Boudica books (she's the Warrior Queen, you know). There's a little too much Rome and not enough British Islanders, if you ask my opinion, but it'll do for a sweeping historical saga.

Also, TWO conjunctions on the same day. Both stemming from the same book, in fact--the interminable Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers. Weakest Wimsey mystery I've read yet, mostly due to its prolonged examination of the romance of the newlywed protagonists. (The subtitle is "A love story with detective interruptions," and well-named.) But I found a reference to a Gordian knot on page 123, coincidentally not half an hour after I learned what a Gordian knot was while reading The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket. And neither five pages nor ten minutes later, Lord Peter mentions that, unlike Dickens, he wouldn't hang Fagin for being a pickpocket. This not one week after reading John Sutherland's complaint in one of his "literary puzzles" books that there was really no reason to execute Fagin, except that he's the villain of the novel and we hate him. Legally, they hadn't a leg to stand on.

This post kind of sucks, but Blogger's being a pain, so I'm going to post and go see if I can fix my interface. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Choirs of Angels

Yesterday was a red letter day in my personal history. It was the day, will forever be known as the day, on which I discovered the nun aisle in the Boston Public Library.

A moment of silence, please.

I picked up Unveiled, The Habit, and (this is SO exciting, you think I'm exaggerating but I'm totally sincere here) The Rule of St. Benedict. The latter is the handbook by which Benedictine monks and nuns live. It's about both how to be a religious, and establishes a lot of rules and ideas about how to live in a community, how to turn a group of people into a community.

In honor of this red letter day, here's a rundown of my top five nun books.

1) The Nun's Story, Kathryn Hulme. I've probably gone on about this before. It was a movie with Audrey Hepburn, which I saw on A&E many years ago, which led me to nun books in general. It's a perfect explanation of why and how a person would choose this life--not as a default or an escape, but as an ambition.

2) In This House of Brede, Rumer Godden. This is one of those books that observes the seasons turning and the small dramas of life--will Sister Agnes ever finish her book? How will we pay for the new sculpture Mother Superior ordered before she died? Will the Japanese novices learn our ways? It's just such a warm and comforting story.

3) Lying Awake, Mark Saltzman. A sister in a small convent in California is having visions, which have revived her faith and her passion for her calling. But when she finds out that they're caused by a medical condition, the book examines the question of how science and faith fit together and conflict with each other. But it does this with a practical simplicity, not a philisophical tirade.

4) Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris. I still count this as a nun book, even though it's really not. It's the journal of a woman who spends time as an oblate in a monestary. It's a mixed-gender community, many of whose members are oblates (sort of like an extended retreat--temporary vows). The book talks about the things that a "typical" person who has a full life (and husband) in the World might find for herself in a place like that.

5) Confessions of a Pagan Nun, Kate Horsley. This is a strange but intriguing novel, set up as the diary of an Irish pagan who joins the church. Mostly it's about how strange and foreign the Christianity of the 4th or 5th century is to us. I don't love it, actually, but I learned a great deal from it that I'm glad to know.

Bonus: Nun TV. Brides of Christ, an Australian series (or miniseries) about the lives of one convent in the 60s. With special appearances by a very young Naomi Watts and Russell Crowe!

Now, what's this I've heard about nun blogs?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Too Much Of Nothing

Have you heard my rant yet about books in which nothing happens? It's a classic problem with literary fiction. Sometimes it's so bad that even when things are happening it feels like nothing happens. A lot of these books are about young people coming of age or marriages slowly falling to pieces. It's a lot of carefully observed everday moments strung in a row for me to find "meaning" in.

Now, I'm the first to admit that I'm kind of an idiot. I watched the movie The Hours and didn't realize it was about depression until someone pointed it out to me. (In my defense, I blame Meryl Streep for blinding me with her forced cheerfulness.) I'm not the first one to catch onto subtle themes. I need things pointed out to me--it doesn't have to be heavy-handed, but it has to be there.

This book, though, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, is the absolute worst of both worlds. The setup, the idea, is so promising in terms of things happening. A doctor delivers his own children on a stormy night. The girl has Down's Syndrome. It's the 60s, people are ignorant, chances are she'll have health problems. He asks the nurse to take her to an institution, then tells his wife (when she wakes from the anasthesia) that they have a son but their daughter dies. The nurse, instead of sending the kid away, leaves town with her and rears the girl as her own.

Wow! Ripe with possibility! First of all, there's the single mother bringing up a disabled child in the sixties. That's got to be tough--lots of interesting things to learn there. There's the idea of being someone on the run, that there might be someone looking for you. There's the doctor keeping a secret from his family. Maybe searching for them. Conflict and high passion.

What a dull, flat book. The whole book is about the doctor keeping the secret from his wife, and how it makes him emotionally unavailable. Really, the whole movie is about a couple in a marriage where the husband is emotionally unavailable. That's all I'll grant the damned thing credit for even TRYING to do. Phoebe, the daughter, appears so far in about three scenes (though her mother has lots of scenes, mostly about being haunted by the memory and idea of this doctor). This is a book about a marriage falling apart. It's a book about people who don't talk to each other. It's a book full of painful silences.

Unfortunately, it is exactly what it's trying to be: a successful "literary" novel.

Monday, November 20, 2006

More of the Same

I say things like this so often that I'm starting to wonder if this just happens to everyone all the time, or maybe it's just a factor of how many books I read. But it happened again! Twice in the same hour, I learned the same esoteric factoid from two different books.

In A Short History of Nearly Everything, during a short discussion on the history of magnifying lenses, I was informed that Vermeer is reputed to have used a camera obscura to capture the quality of light and detail that he did. Apparently he had a good friend who produced some of the most amazing detailed drawing of highly magnified specimens know at the time. This friend, whose name I don't remember, was very secretive about his methods, and it is suspected that he introduced Vermeer to the camera obscura.

When I got on the T, I turned off my mp3 player and opened my book, The Memory Keeper's Daughter. The book is only okay--slow, standard examination of a marriage falling apart. Kind of boring, kind of overblown. But on this day, on the first page I read (178, maybe), one of the main characters, an amateur photographer, explains to a guest how Vermeer used a camera obscura to create some of the best effects in his paintings.

The mind reels.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Night of the Hunter

By Davis Grubb. I can't say enough about this book. I think I can pretty much recommend it to you, whoever you are, sight unseen.

The movie was amazing--I'm not usually one to go on about artistry in a film, but this one was both stylized and natural. It does thing with shadows that are startling and create such an atmosphere. It has an amazing performance by a nine-year-old boy, and another by Robert Mitchum. (We won't go into the little girl who plays Pearl--you can't blame a kid that young for being stiff.)

But the truly amazing part is that all of these things--even some of the visual devices--are directly from the book. It's such a faithful adaptation, I'm truly amazed that both pieces--book and movie--are so great.

If you can't stand Kids In Danger movies (my father is like that), then this is definitely not the story for you. But anyone else--what a fine experience. I'm so glad I read that. It's one of those moments when I don't regret the fact that every book I ever so much as hear about makes it onto my list. Because otherwise, when would I ever have read this?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Things I'm Learning

What did Bill Bryson teach me today, you ask? Maybe I'm fascinated by unlikely things, but I have to say, this thrilled me. Do you know what a lichen is? And why they can grow on rock outcroppings in places like the Arctic where there is no other life? Well, I know now and I'll tell you.

It turns out that a lichen is actually a symbiotic arrangment of an algae and a fungus. The fungus dissolves the rock into a substance that the algae can then digest into nutrition for both of them to consume. How symmetrical is that? How neato? Of course, it's not much of a life--the only living thing for thousands of miles around, sitting on a rock for a long, long time (it can take 50 to 100 years to reach the size of a quarter). But how clever of them to team up like that!

I'm feeling pretty proud of myself for surrendering. In the past week, I've decided not to read three books that had been on my list and that I even had out of the library already. It was in my hands, I opened it up and started reading, I didn't find it interesting, so I put it down. Apparently I wasn't as interested in the life of St. Theresa of Lisieux as I thought I was. Or I Am the Messanger, by Markus Zusak. Just didn't catch me, after ten pages or so. Couldn't do it. I'm not even going to book club this month--the book doesn't interest me.

Just doesn't interest me! So proud! I feel liberated.

Oh, and Night of the Hunter? Awesome, amazing book. It helps that it's an amazing movie, and it's almost exactly the same. But it's just so sweet and scary and stylish, and yet still old-fashioned and charming. Oh, and in case you never noticed that a switchblade is phallic--well, it is.

Monday, November 06, 2006


Big shout-out to Mike for finishing The Sound and the Fury, which I'm sure I couldn't have done. Just looking at a page of that book was a challenge beyond me. I have never felt an urge toward Faulkner, and everyone who tells me about it solidifies that non-urge.

So kudos to Mike for climbing that particular mountain!

Personal update: Night of the Hunter on the train, Groucho and Me next to the bed, and dabbling in something called Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? in the living room. The latter is a collection of essays exploring "inconsistencies" or unanswered questions in classical literature. Pretty entertaining, in spite of a tendencyto go way out of its way to find a convoluted answer after dismissing an intuitive one as "unlikely." (Example: In Mansfield Park, Fanny's aunt has a pug when Fanny is little and still has it 11 years later. This book dismisses the idea that the first one died and she got another one as "unlikely" and proceeds to calculate the dog's age and breedability. It's like reading Young Earth science--nonsense, but the level of mental gymnastics these folks went to is astonishing!)

Anyway, that's my brief update.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Public Service Announcement

Oh, you SO don't want to read this book. It tricked me, see, by being mostly just blah and okay and amateurish, so that by the time I realized that these things can add up to a really overwhelming badness, I was more than halfway through, a point at which I have no choice but to finish the entire thing.

The book is a memoir about the author's life as a waitress. You know how sometimes you read an industry expose, like Kitchen Confidential by Tony Bourdain, where you learn all sorts of juicy insider things? Yeah, this isn't like that. Or you read a book like My Posse Don't Do Homework by LouAnne Johnson--you remember, it was made into that movie, Dangerous Minds--in which someone with an ordinary job that you think you understand gives you the inside scoop, and tells you about extraordinary circumstances? Nope, not that either. Maybe we'll just go with one of many, many literary novels, in which someone whose life is not particularly interesting drifts through the world and has profound observations expressed to us in a lyrical prose style? Mmm.....nope.

Instead, you get Waiting: True Confessions of a Waitress, by Debra Ginsberg. It reads like a high-schooler's report for English class about her after-school job. A solid B+/A- student, but not someone in the AP class. And the teacher grading this composition would FILL these margins with "show don't tell" scrawled in red ink. Generalizations instead of stories. Repeatedly informing us after every job that she learned a lot of about human psychology there. Withholding what might be juicy bits (personal romance, near-nervous breakdowns) with brief phrases like "my latest relationship had recently ended with a lot of bad feelings on both sides," and "I was feeling burned-out."

Imagine a memoir in which every anecdote, EVERY one, was preceded by a phrase like "allow me to illustrate," or "let me give you an example," mostly because there's only about one per chapter, used to follow up pages and pages of generalizations. Imagine an author who doesn't even seem to understand that she's using cliches. Seriously--I've read books in which familiar phrases are recast, and you can tell the writer chose those tried and true words carefully, but I've never read any published book intended for adults that used phrases like "striking in their similarities," "sneak a peek," and "the appointed hour." Seriously, if she's said "peek" instead of "sneak a peek" on that line (page 287), I wouldn't even have noticed it. But no, she reached for the tritest phrase she could find. Oh, oh, and also, I don't think there's a passive verb in this book. It's like she ran a search and replace on the word "is" and excised it from the book entirely.

Whew. I'm glad I got that off my chest. Books that are straight-up, up-front bad from page one I can just put down or rant about righteously. But this book was insidious, creeping up in its badness, its amateur style and total lack of profundity, until I actually began to believe that the world the boring, meaningless place that this writer painted. I'm out from under that now; thank you.

ps. She always wanted to be a writer. She was always "really" a writer, and waiting was just to make ends meet. But when she talks about people who don't think waiting tables is a "real" job, she lambasts them. Also, her list of movies about waitresses and how they're all looking for love and therefore crap is awesome, as it follows the chapter about how all restaurant employees are feverishly looking for love. And ignores the fact that all movie characters are looking for love. I could go on and on and on and on....but I'll stop.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


What kind of a person dedicates his true crime novel about a murderer of widows and small children to his mother?

Davis Grubb, author of Night of the Hunter, that's who.

I haven't read it yet, so I can't say if it's a good book, but it's an amazing movie, really amazing, and you should see it.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Audio Epiphany

Okay, this is turning into "You Learn Something New Every Day" every day. Did you know that Yellowstone National Park--the ENTIRE park--is one giant volcano? I can't believe this is not public information. The last time it blew, 75,000 years ago, it covered 16 states (almost everything west of the Missississippi) with four inches of ash. WHY WAS I NOT INFORMED? It doesn't look like a volcano for two reasons--1) it's a caldera instead of a cone, meaning it's sunken instead of a peak (different ways of forming), and 2) it's so incredibly BIG that there's nowhere on the ground from which you can observe its shape.

I'm finding this book fascinating. It's called A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, and I don't think I would have liked it at all if I'd picked it up in print. I saw it in the bookstore the other day--it's long, and if you flip open to a page, you'll often find the author describing someone's quest for some esoteric piece of scientific knowledge. I think it would not hold my attention as a print book.

But as an audio book, it's delightful. The narrator's British accent is kind of swoony, to start with. Also, the narrator clearly sees a lot of humor in facts that I might not necessarily have found funny. I think Bill Bryson's intent is, in part, the same as Sarah Vowell's--where she rummages through history for the juicy, human, funny bits, he does the same with the history of science. At the same time, though, he's giving you an overall science lesson, plus fascinating tidbits like this week's You Learn Something New fact.

So what makes a good audiobook? It's tricky. I tried to listen to The Time Traveller's Wife a few weeks ago. I've heard it's a marvellous book, and I believe it, but I ended up buying it, because I couldn't bear to listen. This is because it started, early on, with a pretty randy sex scene between the two main characters on their first date. Now, at that point the narrator has let you know that they're going to end up married, but this early in my acquaintance with the characters, the sex squicked me out a little. But I feel confident that won't happen in the book.

Why? Because in print, the reader as a voyeur is tucked away in a corner, quiet, unobtrusive, unobserved. I'm watching these people live their lives, but they are alone together. The voice of the narrator adds another person to this equation (even though, in this case, the narrator is one of the characters). It's me and this guy watching these people have sex, and that's weird. Alternatively, it's this guy telling me about having sex with his wife. Again, weird. Reading is solitary; listening to a book on tape is slightly less so.

Also, it's harder to zip back and forth in an audio file than on paper. If your mind wanders, you can't stop reading--the machine is running. You can't slow down to savor, or rush to find out what happens (though in the latter case, I love the suspense). So I feel that a good choice in an audiobook is a story less densely packed than others. It's a little loose, with enough room for you to miss a sentence or two during the slow parts and not lose track of what's going on, or miss out on sumptuous prose that you'll regret for the rest of your life.

Narrator is a HUGE deal. Never get an audiobook you haven't heard a sample of. I really want to listen to Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, but the guy who reads the unabridged version available on Audible is just so EXCITED to be reading it, I couldn't stand it. You want someone who can do different people's voices without sounding like he's faking--someone who uses rhythms of speech and gentle cadance instead of falsetto and lisping to capture different characters. I sometimes find it a little distracting when they have multiple narrators for different characters, but when well executed, that can be the perfect solution. Memoirs can be great, if read by a good author.

Audiobooks I've enjoyed: Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman. My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult. Self-Made Man, by Norah Vincent.

So, there's my buyer's guide, for whatever it's worth.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Concurrence Redux

Again with the coincidence that two books I'm reading fall together. It's like the universe is a grand tapestry revealing itself to me through books. How spiritual, how kabbalah.

Anyway. I was reading a book about recovered memory, Suggestions of Abuse, by a Dr. Yapko (Richard, maybe? With a last name like that, I've forgotten his first name). I reserved this ages ago, after listening to an episode of This American Life about recovered memory syndrome.

Simultaneously and unexpectedly, Michelle thrust Vanishing Acts upon me. I have been barrelling through the work of Jodi Picoult--too fast, in my own opinion.

To end my anecdote anticlimacticly, I don't want to give away the book. Suffice to say that the topic of what a person might accurately remember from when they are 4 years old is quite relevant to both volumes.

Speaking of Jodi Picoult, I'm going to have to take a break from her, just because so many of her books are so very similar. They're all family dramas based around a court case. I think the structure of the legal system is a useful one in narrative--it allows information to be parcelled out in certain ways, and for people to tell their stories and argue about different angles on the same factual information. But I think she overuses it in some ways. The lawyer is always a player in the case, even in cases where it's a very bad idea, even when they're acting extremely unprofessionally as a lawyer.

It's a strength that there's always a certain amount of obscurity to what's going on--either the facts of the case are obscure, or (as in My Sister's Keeper, her strongest), there really is no right or wrong answer--everyone is right, and everyone suffers for it. But there's the added obscurity of people who withhold information--not just key information for good reasons, or painful information for emotionally understandable if not "good" reasons, but useful information for NO reason. Seriously. It really seemed like the lawyer didn't interview the father at all in Vanishing Acts, and the father kept saying things that summed everything up instead of explaining "I had to take her because her mother was a drunk. Ask anyone." It took like four interviews to get to that.

Okay, I'm done about Jodi. It's really a good book--if I hadn't just finished The Pact a week ago, I would have liked it even more than I did. Next up: well, I haven't decided yet. I'll let you know.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Bookend: You Learn Something New Every Day

So much to relate of my vacation reading, my library trip once back home, the conclusion of this PLR. But to get myself started, to prevent the enormity of the task from overwhelming me, I present you with the tidbits I've gleaned so far today from Nine Parts of Desire, by Geraldine Brooks. This book about the lives of Islamic women does not appear to be related with the play of the same name, except to the extent that they address the same topic and share a title drawn from Islamic texts.

First, and on a pleasingly practical basis, I finally learned the basic difference between Sunnis and Shiites. I still don't know what I should about what the two groups are doing right now in Iraq, but I know that that Sunni is from a word meaning "tradition," and after Muhammad's death they advocated the traditional method of the elders electing a new leader, while Shiite comes from the word for partisans, for the partisans of Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law, and the idea of a blood lineage. Shiites like revolution and fighting the power, historically. Whaddaya know?

But the best thing I've learned already from the beginning of this book is that Islam looks remarkably and eerily like Mormonism when you look at the history. Muhammad was married to a slightly older and very successful businesswoman for many years. After her death, he started having revelations that men shoudl take many wives. As his wives, being young and caught up in his power, began exciting scandal, he started having revelations about cloistering women. When he desired the wife of his adopted son, but couldn't have her (even after said son divorced her out of respect for his adopted father) due to previous revelations categorizing this as incest, he had new revelations declaring all adoptions invalid, so that he could marry this woman.

It looks JUST LIKE MORMONISM. It's like when Joseph Smith had a revelation that directed his wife by name to stick by her husband and stop complaining about the other marriages he kept having.

Creepy old men have really messed the world up, huh?

Welcome back from vacation.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Hiatus Entry

Okay, I won't be around for a little bit, due to various obligations that pretty much everyone reading this will already know about and have gotten drunk at and/or be expecting to see photos of.

But before I go, let me tell you something I learned last week, just because don't we all love to learn?

It is this: Sherpa is not a job description. It's a cultural and racial affiliation. There are about 20,000 Sherpas living in Asia, and about 75% of them live in the Himalayas. So, though a lot of them climb mountains for a living, you can be a Sherpa who's never been above, say 10,000 feet above sea level.

They say you learn something new every day. I know I do, but I started out pretty ignorant.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Sweetness and innocence

I'm all syrupy. Tammy and the Bachelor, starring Debbie Reynolds and (in my favorite Hollywood WTH moment) Leslie Nielsen as the romantic lead, is one of my most beloved and heartwarming movies. If you've seen the movie, you know the book. It's pretty much exactly the same--sweet and all about the wisdom of the naive. Tammy Out of Time, it's called, by Cid Ricketts Sumner. Ricketts! Cid Ricketts! I love it!

The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery. You all know her Anne of Green Gables, of course. This isn't an Anne book, but it's so good. The main character, Valancy, has been ordered around by her stuffy mother and relatives all her life. When she learns that she has only a year to live, she suddenly starts living life the way she wants to. And the book has all the visceral satisfaction that you'd expect in that synopsis. And I don't think I'll really be surprising anyone or giving anything mysterious away when I say that in the end, she's not really dying and she lives happily, ever so happily ever after, in her rustic cabin with the reclusive millionaire love of her life.

When it comes to books to read in the week leading up to your wedding, both of these are much more uplifting than The Year of Magical Thinking, which I finished last week. That book, while beautifully written and moving, had my trying to love Mike less so I won't miss him so much when he passes away many, many decades from now. Eventually I came to my senses and realized that we'll all die anyway, and it's a waste not to love passionately until then. Still, it was tough for a while there.

So this might be my hiatus announcement. I read 11 books last month, and 2 so far this month. This month will also include the honeymoon, so I hope to have a high count then. God, I'm shallow. Wish me luck!

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Why China is Communist

From chapter 77 of Lao Tsu:

The Tao of heaven is to take from those who have too much and give to those who do not have enough.
Man's way is different.
He takes from those who do not have enough to give to those who already have too much.
What man has more thanenough and gives it to the world?
Only the man of the Tao.

Robin Hood was a Taoist!

I formally don't get it. I read the words, and some make sense and some don't, but I don't think I have any kind of impression of what the Way actually is. When I head over to Confucius, I think I'm going to read an analysis, instead of just a translation.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Lao Tsu Was a Crazy Person

What is up, I ask you, with the Tao Te Ching? Have you ever read this stuff? I understand the generic idea of Taoism, which is going with the flow, not resisting the nature of things. Like Pooh. But as you delve into it with the guy who invented it, you realize that maybe he was a little bit on crack.

First, look at the little introductory blurb. This explains that Lao Tsu was the imperial archivist in the time of Confucius (they were contemporaries, but Lao Tsu was older). He was a teacher all his life. The book, though, was written because "as he was riding off into the desert to die--sick at heart at the ways of men--he was persuaded bya gatekeeper in northwestern China to write down his teaching for posterity."

Now, I don't know how he was planning to die in the wilderness--wild boar, maybe, or just good old fashioned exposure--but that makes this book pretty much a suicide note. Which kind of explains some of this stuff. Like "Everyone else is busy,/ But I alone am aimless and depressed," in chapter 20. Or, more universal, "Give up learning, and put an end to your troubles."

Really, the whole book is full of stuff that makes sense as philosophy but is lousy advice. Like, "Is there a difference between yes and no?" Um, yeah. I can see the argument that saying yes to one thing is saying no to another, and it's good philosophy. But as advice for living in the real world, where you're trying to get things done, it's kind of tricky. Do I have leprosy? There's a difference between yes and no, my friend. A big one.

I also think he has a weird relationship with the word "wisdom." This could be a translation thing, I'm not sure. In chapter 19 he says "Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom,/ And it will be a hundred times better for everyone." Here, wisdom seems to mean learning, the idea being that the accumulation of knowledge gives the illusion of wisdom, which gets in the way of attaining an understanding of the holistic nature of the Tao. But then in chapter 22, we learn that "wise men embrace the one/And set an example to all," followed by a long list of good, Taoist things that wise men do. So is wisdom the opposite of good Tao, or the key to it? Hm?

I'm only in chapter 30 right now (there are 80, I think), so there's a way to go. Only just now, though, in chapter 30, has he dealt with the fact that most of life consists of bending the world to your needs. If everyone was a Taoist, nothing would get done. It seemed for the first 29 chapters that the Taoists survive because they're fed by the people who, instead of taking the world as it comes, plough up the field and plant something to eat there. But here in chapter 30, we are repeatedly instructed to "achieve results." We must not "glory in them," "boast," or "be proud," but we should definitely "achieve results,/ because this is the natural way."

I don't know, maybe it's starting to come together. Maybe Lao Tsu, Nut, will do for me & Taoism what C.S. Lewis, apologist, couldn't do for me & Jesus.

Speaking of Jesus, I'm so glad this guy is handling the Bible for me, so I don't have to read it. At least these 80 chapters are each one page long.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Driving Home

I'm working hard at a lot of books right now. The Vagabond, by Colette, for book club. It's not a hard read, actually--it's very good, though I wouldn't have picked it up. It's slim, and poses a lot of interesting questions, though I don't know that it answers them very well. What's the difference between love and lust? How does a truly broken heart affect later love? What does "lasting love" look like, and what is the price of tying yourself to one person? Would being rich and having no responsibility really make you happy? As someone who's getting married soon, a lot of these questions touch quite close to home (maybe not the last one). And the book gives you a lot of room to think about them, without really answering them, which makes for very interesting thinking, but also makes me somewhat dissatisfied with the author. And then you get to filter it through the fact that it was written about 50 years ago--are the answers to these questions different now?

Envy, by Kathryn Harrison. Ugh. This is such a study in psychoanalysis. This is an author reading about analysis (not just "therapy," but analysis--constant, overbearing overanalysis). This book is the friend who won't break up with her boyfriend but really kind of hates him and can't figure out why he's such a jerk and yet is surprised every time he does something jerky. Almost nothing even happens for the first 200 of the total 300 pages. The main character is an analyst. His son died a couple of years ago. He and his twin brother are estranged. He may have fathered a child when he was in college. He's recently become overwhelmed by his sexual fantasies. And for 200 pages he thinks about sex, and his brother, and then thinks about why he's thinking about them and tries to figure out why his wife is so low key, and talks to his analyst. And he's clearly pretty wrong about his brother, and his wife is supposed to be cool and annoyed with his hyperanalysis, but I'm just frustrated with both of them that they can't have a conversation that involves one person saying "I'm upset" and then trying to fix the problem. It's just a hot mess, this book. And I have a great deal of respect for the woman who wrote Poison. Read that book. Please don't read this one; my only reward for finishing it will be sparing you the trouble.

Also finished listening to The Code of the Woosters: Jeeves to the Rescue today, which involved ever so many delightful romantic misunderstandings, and also blackmail and a policeman's helmet. There's no point in talking about a Jeeves & Wooster book. Unless Bertie Wooster is actually speaking, there's no point in the thing at all.

I'm starting to focus on what to bring on the honeymoon. No library books--I don't want to risk losing them. Also, this is a great opportunity for a PLR. So: The Remains of the Day, which I've been saving for this occasion. A Wizard of Earthsea, which why haven't I read this book yet? March, because I bought it, didn't I? Into Thin Air, because I'm never going to sit down to it, otherwise.

This almost covers the range of lengths and tones I need to have with me. Maybe something else. What kind of reading do you bring on your honeymoon? It seems to trivial to bring light beachy fare, but I like to think I'm going to be concentrating on You Know Who more than on my books, so no tomes. What does that leave us? Picture books? It's a really complicated question.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


So we had to go to the doctor last night, and as a little recompense for the hour-long wait, we decided to stop off at the Malden Public Library. It was even Mike's idea, God bless'im.

Here's the thing; quite a few books on my list are only available at Malden. Nowhere else in the BPL system can you get a copy of Look a Lion in the Eye, by the author of The Nun's Story. I think it's the only copy available of Tammy Out of Time, which is the basis of the movie Tammy and the Bachelor, which , if you've never seen Leslie Neilsen of Naked Gun fame as a romantic leading man, you should watch this movie. Where else would I find The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery of Anne of Green Gables fame?

Of course, I could order these things through the system. But it's also just a nice building, with the peaceful, open space of a nice library. It's busy but quiet, but not too quiet. They use the Dewey decimal system, for crying out loud. I love it. So we stopped by, so Mike could pick up his book (about fish that are partially evolved to live on land), and I could scour the place for some of my own books.

So, we walked away with the books I mentioned above. Plus the translation I wanted of the Tao Te Ching. Which is MESSED UP. Get this: "When the great Tao is forgotten, kindness and morality arise. When wisdom and intelligence are born, the great pretense begins." What does that mean? Anyone?

I now have an even dozen library books out. Two of them are Mike's. One I already finished. That's still....a lot of books. Yay!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


Okay, if I had started reading that book I mentioned in the last entry, I would seriously have notice that wow, this is nothing at all like a book that would be written by a novelist of any sort. Aside from being without style or grace, its grammar is quite damaged.

But my favorite recent piece of evidence is from the novel by the "real" Kathryn Harrison that I picked up today. As follows:

From the inside cover copy of Kathy Harrison's Another Place at the Table: A story of shattered childhoods redeemed by love: "Teaching a Head Start program for at-risk four-year-olds, Kathy Harrison became increasingly concerned about one student, Angie, who had been abandoned by a mother who would never be able to care for her. "Could we take her in?" Harrison and her husband asked themselves--a question that quickly changed to "How could we not?" After Angie came Madeline, and Gabrielle, and Tyrone, and all with horrifying pasts and needs as small and as large as a hot bath, clean sheets, and unconditional love."

From the inside cover copy of Kathryn Harrison's Envy: "Will has a good sex life--with the woman he married. So why then is he increasingly plagued by violent erotic fantasies..."

I don't really think I need to go on.

Sunday, August 06, 2006


Well, I've been tricked, and I can't quite figure out how it happed, but I suspect it was my own dopiness that tricked me.

So I was looking at books by Kathryn Harrison, who wrote Poison and The Binding Chair. She has a new (or newish) novel called, I believe, Envy, which looks kind of creepy but which I've decided to read. Partly because I was drunk when I saw it at the bookstore and once it's on my mental list it's hard to get off, and partly because of The Kiss, her memoir, which looked really creepy and was, but not in the off-putting way I was expecting.

So anyway, in looking up Envy on the library website, I came across another book by Kathryn Harrison, about being a foster parent. It looked very sweet and interesting--it's called Another Place at the Table. I thought it was interesting that someone with such a damaged past was a foster parent, and I wanted to read more about it--I know something about her life from her memoir, and something about her, if only from her novels, and I thought it would be an interesting story. So I checked it out.

I just pulled it out to look at. I noticed that the name on the cover was Kathy Harrison, and I thought that was interesting; her novels and somewhat disturbing memoir cite her as Kathryn, but this heartwarming story, perhaps inteded for a more touchy-feely audience, has her name listed differently. Huh. And then I read the acknowledgements, which include the line "My mother, Jean Scott, always knew I could." Um....I read about your mother. I think the word I'd use for her is "narcissistic." Is this some sort of healing thing, that you're thanking her for making you a good mother?

I finally figured out that it's a different Kathryn Harrison when I realized that she lives in Western Massachusetts--the novelist, I know, lives in a big city, I think New York. I feel like a really impressive detective to have figured it out, though!

I also just finished How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff. A great, fast book, about war in modern England. I didn't love the ending, but most of it kept me reading, and I finished it in a day.

Monday, July 31, 2006

So long, so long!

No, I mean it's BEEN so long. I'm so sorry, dear reader. Can I call you D.R.?

I could explain my busyness, but that's irrelevant (as I impressed upon Rebecca this weekend, this blog is ONLY about books). But I can give another, more relevant excuse; I've been reading a lot of YA material that wasn't so great as to merit discussion. When I try to think back on what I've read this month, what stands out is the Lois Lowry, which ranged from okay to very disappointing. Seriously, don't read Messenger. It's a great setup, and then a sudden, pointless, deus ex machina ending. Not at all.

But what was great, what surprised and impressed the heck out of me, was Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. This was a wonderful, delightful book, and I would recommend it to almost anyone, which is saying something. It proves that something really literary doesn't have to skimp on storytelling. It makes use of the shape of the story in unconventional ways, both to make its thematic points, and to build tension and anticipation in lives of the characters.

The only potential drawback is something that I actually believe to be a strength--the styles. The structure of the novel is in six stories, each in a different setting and somewhat different style. It ranges from a published journal in the South Seas in the mid-1800s, to a future dystopian interview, and further. Some of the stories take getting used to (spelling, syntax, etc), and each one relies heavily on its own style. I can't wait to hear what book clubbers are going to say about that chapter, which was very well executed.

I'm also reading Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. It's so good, well-written, friendly and comfortable. I just wish it was more convincing. Well, I don't necessarily mind that it wasn't convincing, I suppose, it's just that it feels full of holes to me. My English teacher used to ask us who, living or dead, real or fictional, we'd like to invite to a dinner party. I think I'm adding C.S. Lewis to my list, which included, so far, Oscar Wilde, Charlotte Bronte, Anne Shirley, and John Watson, M.D. (you need listeners at a party like that).

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Way Behind

And believe it or not, I'm not way behind on books. Just on everything. This has been a heck of a day, and I sort of feel everything creeping up on me. The stuff that urgently needs to be done right NOW is getting in the way of all the things that really need to be planned ahead. Like, say, the ENTIRE FALL. Ugh.

Bookwise, I'm not in a much better headspace. I'm reading two very dense, difficult books, and one quickly read but somewhat personally challenging book. And I'm feeling the temptation of something delicious that's been offered.

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, is the current book club pick. Did I mention this? How the first sentence on the back cover is about his postmodern brilliance? And how the blurbs compare the author to Phil Dick, Nabokov, and I think Kurt Vonnegut? Isn't that a bit much? Anyway, there's nothing wrong with it, per se, but it's not exactly engaging. So far it reads like short stories--the sections are far apart in time, character, and intent. But if they were short stories, they would either be more subtle, or have more of a point. So I assume this is all going to come together somehow. Not sure I care.

Then there's Emergence, can't remember the author, too lazy to look. This is a YA sci fi book about a girl who's part of the next generation of humans, who are all supergeniuses and were immune to the bioterrorist attacks that wiped out the human race. It would actually be just pretty enjoyable, except that it's in the form of a journal written by someone who believes that almost all articles and pronouns are extraneous to language. It's readable, but slow, slow. It's good, the plot is driving me along, but really driving me--it's a carrot and whip situation, with her adventures being the carrot and the thought of spending all this time on a book I don't even finish being the whip. I know, I know, good time after bad. Still.

Then there's Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, by Ann Lamott. I don't like it as much as I liked her Travelling Mercies, and I think it's because the latter was, though essays, a coherent narrative about her discovery of her own spirituality. This is just sort of a jumble of essays about trying to be a good person and mostly being a touchy, cranky person who I probably wouldn't get along with, and hating George Bush. She's very sensitive. Still, she seems to know some things. This reminds me of Girl Meets God in some ways--in that she admits to being flawed and forgives herself immediately. But somehow it's not as offensive as that book was.

And now Michelle has lent me Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult, which I'd love to just read. And I have Messanger by Lois Lowry, which is YA and Lois Lowry and will be short and easy and pleasing. And it's hard not to turn away from these challenges, after a day like this. But I will persevere. I will finish Plan B, and then make Cloud Atlas my bedside book. And I'll find time for all these things, and not let my life beat me down. Fiction is good for that.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Who brought the cat? Would....

So, how do you feel about Margaret Atwood? I've never quite been sure. I read The Handmaid's Tale in high school, and I thought I enjoyed it, though I was bewildered and somewhat turned off by the views it had on sex. I thin I was too young to quite get which bits were shocking and which merely disquieting. (For the record--intercourse with your owner while holding his wife's hand--shocking. Prostitution as an escape from this lifestyle--disquieting.)

Anyway, then I read The Robber Bride in college, and I really enjoyed it. I think the guidance of a professor helped--the characters and relationships are never quite tidy in her work, and it's taken me a long time to get comfortable with untidiness in novels. But I knew which characters I liked and didn't like, even while they were being complicated, so that was great.

Then I read Alias Grace. I actually listened to it on tape, and though it was an abridged version, it was excellent. The narrator did a marvellous job moving back and forth between the first and third person parts of the book. I'll admit that my opinion of the book was biased by the narrator; when I read it recently for book club, I found that I was far more sympathetic to Grace than others. The sweet, hypnotic voice, complete with Irish lilt, that the narrator had put on for Grace's first person sections had convinced me of her innocence more than anything--I couldn't argue when others brought up doubts inherent in her story. But I couldn't buy them, either.

So, we're 3 for 3 at the time of reading, maybe more like 2 out of 3 in retrospect--I don't think I'd enjoy rereading The Handmaid's Tale. So why do I think of her as a writer I'm not sure of?

Well, there are her stories. I've officially decided that liking someone's novels is no indicator of whether I'm going to like their stories, and vice versa. (Barbara Kingsolver is another example of this.) I tried to read Wilderness Tips, and though I couldn't name anything wrong with it, I didn't enjoy it and didn't finish it. I know the one about the cyst in the candy box just kicked me right over the edge.

Then there's The Blind Assassin. You can't even say I didn't like that, because I didn't make it past page five. It's far too conceptual for me--the story within a story within a story, and I'm pretty sure, that's all within a story and told through newspaper clippings. It's just too much, trying too hard, too proud of itself. I really do intend to try someday, but I would not be terribly surprised or disappointed if that day never came.

So why do I doubt her? I just read Lady Oracle, expecting it to be something I wouldn't enjoy or want to read. And in truth, there were tough moments. The narrator had some opinions that I had trouble separating from those of the author for a while. But the story was solid, good, grounded, which is not really what I would have expected from her. And I'm not sure why--the ones I've liked have had very grounded stories--Alias Grace, The Robber Bride, both well plotted, though I think of her writing as being thick with symbolism, literary flourish, words that don't do much.

It's not. Lady Oracle was really good. I wish I had gone into it with a better attitude. I have to admit, I'm really only beginning to appreciate and understand stories that are full of messiness, emotionally sloppy characters. The metaphor in my head is of people whose emotional furniture is straight out of the early 70s--avocado appliances that don't work very well, nubby brown couches and orange shag carpets. And maybe they have ants. These people make the most interesting characters, most of the time, but I've only recently come to terms with them. So I guess now I can call myself a Margaret Atwood fan.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Drunken Blogging!

I really must have had a post by this name before, but darn if it isn't accurate! It's 7:45 on a Thursday night, and I've had half a bottle of wine with dinner and I'm 30 now, THIRTY!, so why shouldn't I share my burbling with you, my adoring public?

You should read some Lord Peter Whimsey, and maybe some Story of the Trapp Family Singers. If you loved The Sound of Music, and you have a tolerance for saccharine, you will love the latter. The first half is the movie, and the second half is the charming story of the family learning English in America and owning a farm and singing singing singing. Yay Trapps! No "von" though, which is sad.

Lord Peter Whimsey! I'm reading Strong Poison, which is the premier of his lady friend. It's funny, though half of the dialogue consists of quotes from classic lit-rit-chaw. Like Jeeves and Wooster, only less antic-y and more plotty. Good stuff!

Went to the library today with Sheila, who has been indoctrinated by me (yay Sheila!) and will be reserving her first book online shortly. Welcome to my world. Anne Lamott (whose name I always spell wrong when I don't look it up, so sorry Anne!) and Lois Lowry and Madeline L'Engle. I want to read also Kazuo Ishiguro and also Ursula LeGuin. I have those books. Let's go Sharon! Yay!

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Busy Bees

Work is cuckoobananas insane, so I've been away from the blog, and I apologize.

I also realized the other day that I was reading a lot of books at once, even by my standards. It's pretty typical for me to have three going at once--one for the train, one for the bedside, and an audiobook. But this past week, I've actually had a train book, two bedside books, a living room book and two audio books. I think that's it, though I could even be underestimating.

Brenda tells me to give up on Cell, which is one of the audiobooks. It came in two parts, and I finished the first part. It's mediocre and creeping slightly downward as the zombies start getting smart and you realize that there's some sort of diabolical plan behind what had seemed to be a zombie-themed disaster novel. It would have been better that way. I've already given you the "King needs an editor" rant, so I'll spare you that one, but I've been advised to stop reading before the characters reach Maine (they appear to be in Exeter, NH right now). Being more than halfway done, I don't know if I have a choice. The other audiobook, to which I switch when the pantomiming sentient zombies get to be too much for my delicate constitution, is The Code of the Woosters, in which occur such delightful antics as the pinching of a cow-creamer. I will leave it at that.

Trans-Sister Radio, by Chris Bohjalian, which I finished not half an hour ago, was very good--Bohjalian sometimes ends up being lighter than he means to be (not humorous, but not weighty), but his tendency to concentrate on the personal even when his plots are sociological and political has served him well. My only quibble with this book is with the awfulness of that title--I really was hoping that it would justify its corniness, but though it's a book about a transsexual and those hwo love her, and NPR plays a role, I just can't let that title slide.

Let's see, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers is getting dryer by the moment, but it's fast, too, so I'm letting it go. Everything that happens in The Sound of Music is over halfway through, and the rest is about being a bunch of Austrian singers in America during the war--learning the langugage, complaining about Americans, admiring Americans, etc. Harry Potter's been on the back burner since I put it down just before what I could tell was going to be a frustrating scene--Hermione is either going to be preachy, right, or both, and I couldn't bear any of those things right now.

Oh, and A Girl of the Limberlost was just lovely. Not as funny as Anne of Green Gables, but as sweet and charming as Little Women. God, there are so many good books in the world. I spent a few weeks intimidated by my pile, but I'm right back in the game.

Which is lucky, because the next book club pick (the name of which escapes me at the moment), is described on its back cover as "post-modern." Angels and ministers of grace defend us.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Uh oh, I'm THAT GUY

If you had heard the rant about overdue library books that I used to give. I had a really good plan to create a crack team of elite due date enforcers--this team would appear at your home in their long black coats, wearing black leather gloves, and very politely and slightly ominously request that you return your overdue books. Certain readers might recognize the KAOS Death Squad led by Dewitt Clinton (yeah, you read that right) from back in the day.

I imagined the embarassment of having this three-person squad in their special black van show up to demand their library books of all things would encourage prompt returns and/or renewals.

And now, dear readers, I am that person! Part of my soul awaits the appearance of the Squad on my doorstep. Yes, I have to admit it: I've had two overdue books in the past three weeks.

I have no defense. I tried to renew but couldn't, I didn't notice how fast the date had advanced. There's no excuse; I was late. I work two blocks from the library and couldn't return them. I manage my account online and couldn't renew them. I am, in fact, That Guy.

I would like to apologize to the public, the library system, and the world at large. And to Brenda, because I teased her so mercilessly about her overdue books. There too go I.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Back in the Saddle

Okay, I'm getting back in the swing. I'd like to thank the Most Fun Book Ever, Shining Through by Susan Isaacs. I usually reread it about once a year, but it's been more than a year at this point. When I started, I was worried it wouldn't hold up--Susan Isaacs has, more recently, joined the club of Talented Writers Who Need Editors to Stop Them from Overdoing Their Best Schtick (founder and chairman: Stephen King). When I started Shining Through, I started to see some of the overkill I've noticed in her previous books. But I was overreacting--it's just a very casual conversational style, and it's a lot of fun.

I also finished The History of Love for book club, which I admired. I enjoyed some of it very much, though I'm not 100% sure what it's about (love, maybe? It's in the title, after all). And The Brief History of the Dead, which I was listening to as an audiobook. I enjoyed that very much, though the ending was one of the most WTF? moments I've had in a long time. I blame the audiobook format, especially on mp3--you don't know the ending is coming till it comes. So I'm listening along, waiting for some upshot--and it ends. Again, I think its depiction of heaven is kind of corny. Also, there is a LONG dream-like sequence near the end that was as boring as listening to someone else's dream. But I did enjoy it, very much.

And now, the line-up! From the library: Strong Poison, by Dorothy L. Sayers (recommended as a good place to begin the Lord Peter Wimsy series, though I have mixed luck with mysteries); The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (I suspect this is going to be hard to read, sad and personal. But I've read about the author and she seems like an amazing woman); Trans-Sister Radio by Chris Bohjalian (his books are very thoughtful, but a little much; I think I'll be okay if I keep that in mind going in). From the shelves: The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro (how long have I been planning to read that?), The Five Fists of Science, Matt Fraction (it's a comic, but I'm excited). Then maybe something else--I've got a lot to choose from.

And away we go!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Off My Books

I'm off books. It's so weird. I don't know what to do with myself. I'll sit in my living room, flip channels on the TV, read the catalogs from Crate & Barrel. I'll wander around. I made some horrid tzatziki (hint: don't use nonfat yogurt). I can't pick anything up.

The History of Love, for book club, is going all right. I read it on the train, and while I don't get it at all, it's pleasingly written and not entirely nonsensical. I'm not really into it, though--I don't quite get the point.

I put down Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince mostly because I started reading it immediately after finishing The Order of the Phoenix, and I don't think that was the best idea. They're very different books, and I found the change in tone dissatisfying. Also the sense of starting at the same old place was frustrating.

1776 is promising, but it's so much like schoolwork. I read a page and realize I didn't take in any of the information on it.

A Brief History of the Dead, the audiobook, is still going well. I'm still enjoying it, and I'm curious about how it's going to end. Although the majority of the story, in the city of the dead, is kind of hard to pin down, as it doesn't have a whole lot of tension. The tension of the Antarctica scenes, though, is plenty.

I tried to pick up The Remains of the Day, and that might work. I have the new book Ruth lent me, whose name I forget. I went to reread the good parts of By the Sword, but I think I've outgrown Mercedes Lackey. I think I need a ripping adventure story. I need Pirates of the Carribean, the novel (that's a metaphor--I don't want a novelization!).


Monday, May 15, 2006


I've been meaning to write about Uglies for a while. This weekend I finished Pretties, the sequel, and I'm actually somewhat less interested in talking about it. I might not even read the final one, Specials, when it comes out. Pretties was weaker, the structure that worked as a surprised in Uglies feels awkward when you see it coming. Things get more dangerous, which is something that makes me uncomfortable in the middle of a series.

Well, maybe not. That was never what bothered me about Harry Potter. But I guess there's no feel from Uglies that the characters feel the change, feel things mounting.

But what I thought was interesting about Uglies was the premise. In the future, at the age of 16 everyone is given surgery to make them pretty. The idea is that there is a biological imperative to be drawn to beauty. Beauty is clear skin, large eyes, full lips, symmetrical features. These are things that indicate good health to us on an instinctive level, and they are evocative of small children, inspiring protectiveness. So the point of this surgery is to equalize people, to eliminate subtle but irrelevant psychological predispositions as a factor in life. It also makes you healthier, stronger.

The story is, not unexpectedly, about people who have fled this life to maintain their natural individuality. They live in the woods, eat meat, their hoverboards run on solar power. One girl is torn between worlds. The usual. But the main character, Tally, who wants to be pretty, has a number of arguments with her friend Shay (in favor of staying ugly) that are really interesting. Of course, I'm supposed to automatically understand that staying unique is better, but Tally/prevailing wisdom has some really interesting arguments. And beauty and society are very fully realized themes here. Tally falls in love with someone who never had the operation, and has to learn that he's not ugly. She develops a role in a new community and has to reexamine her role in her old community.

I could be giving it too much credit, but I thought it was really thoughtful for what it was--YA action story.

But I probably won't read the third one. It'll be called Specials. Specials file their teeth; I just can't go there.

Friday, May 12, 2006

No Time!

Can't blog now! Harry's in trouble! He's been caught with his head in Umbridge's fireplace, but Hermione seems to have a plan. The illustration at the top of the chapter appears to have given it away!

ps. The Minuteman system won the Battle of the Library Reserve Systems. Also thank you, biology M.A.A.M.N. (Master of Arts Any Minute Now) krm for confirming that you can't kill the entire population with a 24-hour virus.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Sweet Hereafter

Many folks have read The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, which was an excellent book (her memoir Lucky is great, too). But there's something that I had a problem with, which comes back to me now that I'm listening to A Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier.

First, other triva about this book. The reader is the same guy who played the lawyer in My Sister's Keeper. I'm now deep enough into this audiobook thing that I know voices. He wasn't my favorite, but he's doing a pretty good job here, I must say. Also, I'd like to complain about the idea of the entire population of the Earth being killed off by a virus that kills you within 24 hours of contracting it. There are people in Darkest Africa or the Amazon basin who would never get this virus. I cannot accept this; I could have it was addressed more directly, but it was brushed over. If 28 Days Later taught me anything, it's that a fast-acting virus might not even make it across the channel.

But the main point: how do you feel about heaven? I can get along with the idea of the book taking place of heaven, but I don't feel comfortable with the idea of the afterlife being a city. Where people from all over the world, those who lived on islands, in Mongolia and Tibet, everyone ends up in this city. It shifts shape and size to accomodate, but it's all city. Also, people who live there have jobs. They cook and eat food, run restaurants or print local newspapers. They have apartments and buy shoes for fun. It's a very material life, and there is neither an explanation of things like "who's manufacturing these shoes?" nor a dreamy mystery about these issues. I'd accept the latter. But it's not even a question--the afterlife is much like life.

(As Mike says, "If I get to heaven and find out I have to get a job....eugh.")

Now, of course this is only the first stage of death. You live in this city until the last person who remembers you dies, and then you vanish--move on to The Next Big Thing, I presume. I can't quite tell if I'm not supposed to have figured this out, but I hope I am, because I have. The epigraph completely gives it away; it's about the African distinction between the dead who reside within living memory, and the honored dead who are considered "ancestors."

I just can't get in line with the metaphysical being brought so closely in line with the physical. It's acutally kind of boring to me. It makes things smaller than I believe them to be.

But to tell you the truth, what really bothers me is the idea that a bunch of guys on an Arctic outpost died of a virus that kills you within 24 hours. Doesn't. Make. Sense.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Two Libraries Enter...

So I've pitted the BPL against the Minuteman Library Network. I've been waiting for Pretties for almost a week now from the BPL; I'm at the top of the list, but there are only three copies in the system. There are about ten copies "On Order," but that doesn't mean much. It can take up to a month to go from "On Order" to "Received--In Processing," and then it can take over a week to finish the "processing" part and get the darned book.

Ah, but Minuteman put it in the mail for me on Saturday, the day after I requested it. The only problem with that is that Minuteman has a slow transit system--once something's in Transit in the Boston network, it rarely takes more than two days to get to you. Minuteman can take a week, though this could be due to the branch I use. It's closed on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and I suspect, though I'm not sure, that the Somerville West requests actually go through the Somerville Main branch, adding at least a day to the process.

We'll see which library blinks first.

Friday, April 28, 2006


Well, I'm enjoying this break. I'm limping along through three or four books right now, and, while I wouldn't call it blissful, it's definitely fun.

Let's see. I'm reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I'm on page 150. Another book would be winding up right now, and he hasn't even gotten to school yet. He just got off the hook at his hearing. A lot of people in Harry Potter's world seem to act like idiots mostly because if they didn't, there wouldn't be enough conflict. This is just one of the many ways in which His Dark Materials is superior to Harry Potter, with apologies to the Potter fans out there. And wouldn't you rather have a daemon than an owl?

Another way Pullman is better than Rowling is one of the chief things I notice, for good or ill, in fantasy novels: do I really belive and feel deep down that this world you're building runs smoothly when you're not there to manipulate it? Harry Potter isn't as bad as a lot of other books--some Neil Gaiman, for example (I'm looking in your direction, Neverwhere), is bad like that. But the way that the muggle world and the wizard world overlap, sometimes clashing and sometimes slipping by each other, seems a little inconsistant. Everything has a clever name, but not because they're charmed by clever names; rather, because Rowling is making them up. You can't actually image a factory that produces the crazy candies, or an artisan brewing butterbeer. What are really the rules and limitations of the portraits that move? I guess you could just plant all that under the label of Too Fantastic. But angels and witches and armored bears are fantastic. And I believed that those witches and bears lived in the arctic and flew on cloud pine branches (the witches) and hunted seals and fought Tartars (the bears).

Also, it's fun to say panserbjorn.

That's all I have to say about that.

It turns out The Kalahari Typing School for Men could arguably be the place where the Mma Ramotswe books jump the shark. The repetition of things you know from the rest of the series is getting boring. The respect paid to the polite and methodical mannerisms of the characters is wearing thin (they refer to Mma Makutsi's score at Botswana Secretarial College as her "97 percent or whatever it was." Where's the respect?) . The financial hardships seem a bit feigned, and it's taking longer with each book to get into the plot. The first three books were wonderful, though, and I highly recommend them.

Still reading Girl Meets God, and starting to enjoy it in between bouts of loathing. There's a real vibe of "look at me and my delightful HUMILITY," and I just don't like or respect the writer or (and here's the key problem) her faith. I guess there's something about writing a book about your faith that is innately braggardly, but I didn't feel this way about Ann Lamott.

There are two others that deserve their own entries, so a teaser: A Brief History of the Dead (on audiobook) by Kevin Brockmeier, and Uglies by Scott Westerfield.


Thursday, April 20, 2006

I Cried and Cried

I'm setting myself free. I'm still reading Girl Meets God, though I've taken a few days off. It's so painful. I'm finishing The Amber Spyglass, and it's so good, and I haven't cried yet, but that's only because I can only read three pages at a time before the T stops, or there's a staircase to climb, and it breaks the flow of my inevitable weeping.

So while I'm muddling my way to the end of G vs. G, I've decided not to challenge myself much for the next month or so. This means: the two Harry Potters that I'm behind on, The Kalahari Typing School for Men, Uglies (hopefully before it's due on Monday), maybe a reread of Shining Through. There's a weird chance that this list might include a book I've been avoiding, The Kiss, which I expect to be bizarre, but which I've had on and off my list so many times I just want to get it over with. Oh, and also The Remains of the Day. And, if you want to count comics, rereading the Hellboy I'll get back from my brother this weekend, plus Barry Ween Boy Genius. I think I might need to wait a while before I can get into From Hell, though I might try.

By the way, for the record: we're back at a count of 57, and that in no way includes the books Ruth's about to lend me, or a number of other upcoming possibilities.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


I'm not not not enjoying this book, but I expected that. I'm reading it for the express purpose of commiserating with someone who read it and hated it and needed to complain.

This is going to be one of those reviews that make me hope the author doesn't google herself very often. The book is called Girl Meets God and the author is named Lauren F. Winner. It's about a girl who was raised Jewish, converted to Orthodox Judaism early in college, and then converted to Christianity, I think, at the beginning of grad school. This sounds interesting. This is a promising book.

I almost can't believe how non-spiritual this book feels. There's a great deal of detail about how one celebrates Judaism and what it feels like to be "courted by a very determined carpenter from Nazareth." There's a lot about learning, reading, converting, praying, choosing a house of worship--both for Judaism and for Christianity. The girl is clearly an overachiever. She spent high school reading about Judaism--all the time. She converted. When she felt Jesus in her heart, she got rid of everything relating to Judaism that she'd ever owned, like breaking up with a high school boyfriend. But there's no feeling there--there are the details of doing, but there's no feeling. There's no sense that having this religion changes the way she interacts with the world, except to talk to others about religion. Or to decide how they fit with her, or to, at least subtly, judge them. There's nothing about her personal relationship with God and the world, except that she believes in Christ.

She reminds me of Wendy Shalit--VERY much. Remember Wendy? She "came out" as a conservative during Coming Out Week in college. She believes in Modesty and Women Empowered through Subordination. I hear Wendy in Lauren. It's exhausting.

Also, she got an Anne of Green Gables reference wrong, referring to "Gilbert and Annie." It might be a typo, but dude, you just don't go there.

There's more, but it's so bad you almost can't wrestle with it. It's self-righteous, superficial, and intensely NOT touching.

And I'm still reading! I LOVE to whine.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

My Own Personal Life Coach

On the topic of Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck, I can say many things. I could wonder over the idea that everyone will be rich if they find what they were meant to do (the way I figure it, in her ideal world there are a lot of people who get real personal satisfaction and pleasure from janitorial work), but I'll move beyond that.

I'll point out the most interesting bit, which is the last five chapters, where she describes the process of going through a major life change. It starts with a catalytic event, good or bad, possibly something that happens to you (e.g. your spouse dies) or something you do (like deciding to move for a year to a foriegn country). This destroys your sense of identity, on some level, and you begin to proceed through her little diagram. Square one: mourning the old you and making through one day at a time. Square two: dreaming and idealizing whatever your new life is going to look like. Square three: the long hard climb of turning your new circumstances into a life--learning to do and be what you need in your new life. And finally Square four: your new and happy life is settled and yours to live. What I like about this is not that it's profound, but that it allows you to look at those feelings and realize that they're normal--when you have big dreams that don't materialize into anything, that's because you're in stage 2, which is not the right place for that.

Before you think I've gone all self-helpy, I'd like to point out that the whole reason for the preceding thumbs-up type analysis is because I'm about to get to the Crazy, and I don't want you to think this was an awful book. It was amusingly written and had some useful bits. It wasn't for me, because it really wasn't for someone whose only problem in reaching her goals is laziness and/or procrastination. But I know people this book is written for.

Except, of course, for the Crazy. Martha Beck is a Believer. She's not Christian (anymore--try Leaving the Saints for accounts of her being Touched by an Angel and falling out with the Mormons), but she Belives in a Higher Power that Speaks to her through her Intuition and also Fortuitous Circumstances. She belives, for example, that generosity is important in a happy life, and that good things come to people who are generous. I agree with this. I believe that generosity connects you to the world around you in positive ways, and that those connections are likely to yield good things. But what Martha Beck believes goes along with her list of anecdotes: after giving money to a good cause, a large and unexpected check will ARRIVE IN YOUR MAIL. Seriously. A paycheck for a job you don't remember doing. An inheritance from someone you don't know and won't miss. A lottery you didn't know you entered. Something.

I can't go on. Just, be aware that this book is not terribly practical. It's very much for people who don't feel happy feeling happy, or who can't get in touch with their feelings. I am very much in touch with my inner child. She spent a lot of time trying to convince me to be more open about my emotions. I think I speak for all my coworkers when I say: that would be a very, very bad idea.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Take a Memo

To: Stephen King
Re: Cell, etc.

Action items:
1) Get editor. During action scenes, the multitude of tiny details that you insert for the purpose of verisimillitude are more problematic than anything else. Case in point: during zombie-driven riots, a man runs past our hero carrying "a brown cardboard carton with the word "Panasonic" stencilled in blue on the side." It's exhausting.

2) I know your life was changed by your first book sale, Stevie, but it's not quite the same for comic book writers. I am not knowledgeable about this subject, but I can tell you this. First of all, you don't generally sell "your first graphic novel." Most comics are serialized. And if you did sell a graphic novel instead of a concept for serialization, it would probably not be for a life-changing amount of money. Neil Gaimon is rich, your hero is not.

3) I'm never READ The Dark Tower, and even I can tell that your hero's great masterpiece is based very closely on The Dark Tower. Dude, it's not cute when you pay homage to yourself, it's just weird.

I whine because I love. Seriously, you're like the Steven Spielberg of horror--even when I know what you're doing, you can make me feel exactly what you want me to. (Your fantasy, on the other hand, is generally craptastic.) Still, please use your powers for good, not for pointing out DURING A ZOMBIE-DRIVEN BUS CRASH that the Red Sox toured Boston in duckboats after they won the World Series. You're weakening your own case. I'm losin' the love, I really am.

We'll discuss these points at the status meeting. Thanks!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A Perfect Storm of Zombies

I don't know what possessed me to pick Stephen King's Cell for my audiobook this month, and then to start it two days after The Worst Zombie Dream Ever. I'm not really afraid of zombies during the daylight, when I'm an adult and I know there's no such thing. But it has been my fear since childhood that while I'm sleeping everyone in the world but me will turn into a dangerous beast (before zombies it was dobermans) while I sleep and I'll have no one to turn to.

So I'm walking across the Public Garden listening to the opening paragraph of the book, which takes place in Boston. And the main character is walking down Boyleston Street. Hey, I'm almost right there! And he's carrying a bag from the store Small Treasures. Hey, that's probably based on Small Pleasures, where I got my engagement ring! Cool, even a little spooky. And the gift in his bag is for Sharon.

I stopped the book. It was just too much--the zombie dream, the imaginary guy right up the block from me with a gift for me from a store that I shop at ONLY THERE WILL BE ZOMBIES!!! This is really very not cool.

I'll listen to it. I'm a grown-up. But oh, I'll be really scared.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Self Help Makes Me Proud

Among other things, I've been reading a self-help book called Finding Your Own North Star: Reclaiming the Life You Were Meant to Live. The author, Martha Beck, is the same woman who wrote Leaving the Saints and Expecting Adam, both of which were very interesting and really engaging. They also wreaked a little havok on whatever passes as my spirituality. So I'm reading about how to find what my Essential Self really wants to do in life.

Seemed like a good idea. I have a good job, but I wouldn't call it a calling. I don't know that I have a calling, though I think it might just be to hang out with Mike, have a bunch of fun friends, and rear some cool kids. The book does not seem to help me; it's really meant for tense workaholics who can't listen to their inner child and stop to smell the roses. The idea is that you'll be more successful and happy doing something you love, even if it's not the world's definition of "success." By that definition of success, I'm doing pretty well. Mostly (according to these quizzes) I'm a pretty happy person.

Also still reading Postville, which is interesting but too long and too personal. His research is really interesting and he recounts a lot of great experiences and meeting interesting people. But he doesn't really clarify "the connection" he seems to want to draw between the Iowans in this tiny town and the Hasidic Jews who have moved in and opened a successful kosher butchery. It's really more about the author's relationship with his Jewish heritage. And even that is mostly a lament about how he's not really Jewish enough if he lives in Iowa.

And I'm almost done with Self Made Man, as well. I think one of the flaws of the book is that a lot of her observations are snide observations of an elite liberal-arts educated New Yorker hanging out with people who take their bowling league seriously, or people who sell coupon booklets door-to-door. She learns more about being working class than she does about being male, through most of the book, and even then, there's a lot more pity than you'd see from someone who really learned something. But she sort of redeems herself by having a nervous breakdown after the whole experiment. And there are some really interesting observations about dating--I think that chapter was by far the strongest, at least in part because she was interacting with other New Yorkers (or at least urbanites) in that chapter.

Upcoming: Girl Meets God (after which a hiatus on religious books, but someone I know from a message board wants someone to argue with about it, so I offered to give it a shot), Mission to America (okay, after THAT a religion hiatus, but at least it's a novel), and, after Easter, a couple of Harry Potters. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Well, it's been the literary equivalent of a cloudy, drizzly, cold and damp week or so. Not a dry spell--that's different. This has just been the kind of stretch that makes you think God has a head cold and is taking it out on you. Metaphorically.

First, I have to admit that I gave in to an inexplicable urge to read a book by a woman named Lurlene. Perhaps I shouldn't judge, but that doesn't seem to be stopping me. In a search for fiction about Amish people, I wound up with a young adult romance novel called Angels Watching Over Me, by Lurlene McDaniel. I did not realize how awful it would be; I would have stopped reading it but the whole thing took about two hours, so by the time I realized how bad it was, it was too late to stop. Embarassingly, I realized when I read the blurbs in the back of the book, she also wrote a number of books I recall fondly from my youth, including Too Young to Die, I Want to Live, and Six Months to Live. Do we see a common theme?

For my future Amish literature needs, instead of reading the rest of this trilogy (Lifted Up by Angels and Until Angels Close My Eyes, and aren't you glad I read these books so you don't have to?), I'm going to go with Jodi Picoult's Plain Truth. I think that'll fill my Amish needs.

In other sadly abortive attempts at bettering myself, I had to surrender The Diary of a Country Priest, as well. With this one, I can't be fully sure it wasn't that I just wasn't in the mood to work that hard. It's a sad book, first of all, about a priest who finds his small country parish to be uninspiring, and who doesn't manage money well and seems a little less than admirable himself. But the problem with the book, really, was the long, uninterrupted paragraphs of description and characters with long monologues about the nature of the priesthood, etc.

It's hard for me, but I think I might as well just let it go. I have to remember that if I die not having read every book that ever crossed my path, it will not be the end of the world. It's all about mortality, you know?

And finally, I also gave up on The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No-Horse. This book might have been good, actually, but it was really very much not up my alley. I'm always suspicious of a book with a geneology chart in the front. And long paragraphs rhapsodizing about music don't usually win me either. It doesn't actually have any magical realism in it (not in the first 36 pages, which was the 10% test I gave it), but it came very close--they removed the wall of the house to get the piano in, and the woman plays the piano nude in the middle of the night, with the whole world flowing around her. Then there's a flood and she dresses as a man and becomes a priest.

I don't know. I feel like maybe I should try--the story had promising things in it. It was very much my kind of book in many ways. But I just wasn't enjoying it.

Well, what're you gonna do? I'm reading other books now, and enjoying them. I went to the library and have 12 items checked out now (according to my account). There will be others.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

In Absentia

Where have I been? What have I been doing? Don't I know how you worry? Don't I care that you've been pacing the floor wondering if I'm okay, or if I'm dead in a ditch? You don't think I care at all about your feelings.

Well, I'm very sorry. I was away for a weekend, and then I was pushing a major course live, which I'm proud to say was pulled off by various magical tricks and diverting slight of hand techniques.

So there's what I've been reading, and my (for me) exciting upcoming experience. Regarding the first, I'll just say that I've been testing a number of books only to discover that I don't actually want to take them on. More on this later, and possibly a little cosmetic update to the klog (as Mike calls it--for booklog).

But the upcoming event--never let it be said that you haven't seen karma in action--I'm going to the Public Library Association National Conference at the Hynes this week! Though I have rather given up on my little dream of being a librarian (seriously, I've not even organized enough to be a project manager--if I'm going to jump careers, I'll really need to do something LESS rigorous, not more), I'm so thrilled to get to wander their exhibition halls and see what happens. I understand there are a lot of publishers there with books--and maybe swag! I'm all tingly.

And this wonderful thing came into my life because I volunteered to do a favor for an internet stranger. I almost didn't, either, because it seemed presumptuous to answer a request for help that was tossed out into the blogosphere intended for actual librarians. But I live in Boston and have a car, so I'm delivering boxes for Bill Barnes of Overdue Media, creators of the excellent webcomic Unshelved. I understand I'm going to walk away with a T-shirt, and I hope, a really great glimpse inside the world that brings me all the things I treasure--BPL, Minuteman Library Network, my beloved Malden Public Library, etc.

On, to glory!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Done and Done

So what have I finished? I reread Ender's Game last week--excellent stuff. Orson Scott Card may be a bigot and a crackpot fundamentalist and may have a really hard time figuring out how to end a book, but darn if he isn't a gifted storyteller. Like his super-genius characters, the secret to his gift is great empathy. You know the character as he knows himself, and therefore can love and despise him all at once.

Our Man in Panama, by Graham Greene (or was it The Tailor of Havana? No, I remember--Our Man in Havana, an Entertainment. But I've said too much already). Seriously, John Le Carre totally stole from Green, but Greene is better. Well, I've never read Le Carre....but Greene is so funny! I like the subtitle, too: An Entertainment. A comedy of errors, really.

My Sister's Keeper, Jodi Picoult. The romatic subplot was thin (you really need a better reason than that to keep people apart for 15 years), and the reader of Julia's character being horrible didn't help. (You know how on SNL you can tell they're reading off cue cards? Like that, only in audiobook form. LONG pauses at weird moments.) The core conflict and story, the family's story, were good. There were parts where I wanted more meat, but I will say formally that I enjoyed this book a lot and would recommend it.

Am I going to get into trouble if I admit that I just finished Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay, which is designed to help you decide whether to break up with your significant other? I'm not considering anything like that, as I warned Mike. But how does the book tell you what to do? Turns out, with a series of "diagnostic questions." And it was an interesting view into the mind of someone who's staying in a miserable relationship, or who thinks of leaving every time a problem comes up. I think I would recommend it to someone who was looking for advice on this subject. But again (DISCLAIMER), this is not me.

So now I'm reading Crossin Over: One Woman's Exodus from Amish Life. First of all, it's accurate in that it's really just the one woman's story--it's barely about the Amish, it's barely about anything except this twenty year old girl falling in love with a fifty year old, thrice divorced man with gout. Also, I'll tell you--she hates the Amish. Loves her family, hates Amishness. Sounds like her dad was verbally abusive. I don't know if you can blame all the Amish for that, but you can barely tell from this amateurish book.

I'll finish it though. It's shorter than this blog entry.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


What. The. Heck??? I can't go into this without spoilers, but I will try by not telling you what book. But WHY did you end the book like that? Why? Why did I read about all those things, all these people, why did they go through all these specific trials and torments to end up like that? Unlikely! Even perverse fate is not so perverse.

Did you ever see City of Angels? At least when they used that ending, it made a certain thematic sense. That movie was requesting that I think about certain things, and that ending made me think about those things in a different way, more complex. The issues this book was asking me to consider were THROWN OUT THE WINDOW with this ending.

If you know what I'm talking about and have read this book (hint: I've mentioned it here before), and you get why it ended like this, please let me know.

I've actually finished a bunch of books in the past few days, but that will come later, so I don't give away what book makes me want shake the author.

Edited to add: You know what it's like? It's like on TV whenever someone gets pregnant and they're thinking about getting an abortion, and then before they can go to the clinic they have a miscarriage. So you don't have to deal with the fallout of a real, difficult choice with no easy right answer. It's a cop out, I tell you. Grr.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Them Wacky Amish

I'm not worried about insulting the Amish in my post, because they don't use the internet or read blogs.

I'm on about page 2 (literally it's page 10, but the text started one page ago) of Crossing Over: One Woman's Exodus from Amish Life, and I can tell that this is not a book about someone who loves the Amish. I don't know what else I would expect from these leaving religion books that I'm getting into now, but I was a little surprised.

But what I've learned already! Apparently the Amish were founded in 1693 by someone who left the Mennonite church because he felt they "did not carry shunning far enough." Hear that Amish? Be more shunny!

But the best part is that this guy who founded the Amish later excommunicated himself from the Amish.

This is already fun.

ps. Can one woman have an exodus? In a related grammatical nitpick, can you really have a "mass exodus," or is that redundant, like (nod to Becky) "very unique?"