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.