Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Word a Day

Don't you think we should all try to use the exclamation "Welladay!" sometime today? I've decided to find somewhere to work it in--something vaguely surprising always happens, right?--but I wonder if I'm going to have any luck. See if you can do it, and let me know.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

On a Good Stuff Streak, with an Aside

Did I tell you how much I liked Carter Beats the Devil? Because I did. It's by Glen David Gold (interestingly, husband of Alice Sebold, also a great writer, but of a very different type of book. It reminds me of how Nicole Krauss's The History of Love is thematically as well as stylistically very similar to Jonathan Safran Foer's work--interesting how different sets of literary spouses are so different).

Anyway, what a fun book. I have a thing about stories about magicians, and about the idea of the importance of magic (speaking here of the vaudeville type of magic, not necessarily of just the idea of magic in the human psyche). My thing is, I think, that I kind of don't get it. I mean, the magician knows it's a trick. I know it's a trick. While I'm impressed by the tricks, what I'm really impressed by is showmanship and their ability to trick me, as opposed to really thinking there's anything fabulous going on.

This is similar to my issue about people who talk about the importance of Storytelling. You would think that as a voracious reader and consumer of fantasy (both in the High Fantasy tradition, and in the Made Up Things genre), I would really be someone who felt that Storytelling Is What Binds People Together, and Society is Defined by Its Stories (see Neil Gaiman--anything by Neil Gaiman). But I don't really get it. I think because there is no part of my mind that is not suffused in stories--there is no way for me to picture a story-less world and therefore to see how stories act on the real world. It's like picturing true nothingness, like before the universe. You can't imagine it, because there's nothing there to imagine.

Okay, that was way off-topic. Anyway, Carter Beats the Devil does some amazing things: it combines someone's life story (ie. a chronic story) with an immediate "now" of action (ie. the acute story), without boring me with the first or rushing me with the latter. (As much as I loved Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, the first half was acute, the second half chronic, and they did not fit together in the least). It was neither all sunshine and roses, nor was it about how the human condition is tragic and we may as well just grin and bear this veil of tears. It was such a hopeful story. I really recommend it. If, that is, you have a few weeks--it's almost 500 pages long, and, though fast moving and fun, not really challenging, it is so rich that it took me a while to read.

Totally different book: The Dogs of Bedlam Farm, by Jon Katz. I just finished A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life, by the same author. It's interesting, because they cover a lot of the same ground--Bedlam Farm was written first, about his first year living on a farm with his dogs, and A Good Dog was written later, covering earlier and later material, too. These books are flawed but charming. As memoirs, I accept that they jump around a little in time, because they're arranged thematically instead of chronologically, but it often gets confusing--if you got that chicken more than a year after you got there, why did you mention him in the first chapter? If you said goodbye to that dog so early, why do you describe your life on the farm as your life with him? Things like this.

The stories were nice--it was interesting to see someone who was eager for farm life, then, it turns out, pretty unprepared for it, and finally, it turns out, thrilled by it, though it was harder than he expected. I love that he's blunt about the difficulties, and gets his hands dirty with things like that. I don't always love the author/narrator, but I liked the stories he told. I felt sometimes like he would acknowledge and own his faults, but with such a sense of distance (or maybe it was a sense of his own virtue in acknowledging them?) that it didn't really make me feel close to him.

And finally, now I'm reading The Pirates! In an adventure with Scientists, which is a silly, Monty Python sketch of a novel starring Charles Darwin and the Pirate Captain. If it wasn't so fluffy it would probably drag, but it IS so fluffy, and it's glorious. I'll be done in a day.

Once again I overcommitted at the library--just after promising myself another Personal Library Renaissance!--but it'll have to wait till I finish all these glorious reads! I have a Tamora Pierce YA fantasy, another of Louisa May Alcott's grown-up books, and a book of short stories, from which the plot for the movie Secretary was (I gather) culled. I have two books by Jo Walton--the one I'm reading now is a true Victorian novel, only all the characters are dragons. It's interesting, because it has all the ponderousness of a Victorian novel, plus lots of raw meat and gold. It's not funny, or really fantasy--it's Victorian. The other is an alternate history thing about an England that made peace with the Nazis.

I'm so on a roll. It's about time!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Purge

I was trembling, but I did it. The great purge. The list was too long, something had to go. I couldn't face the list of 57 books. (I added NINE books to my list this week. NINE. I'm not allowed to read about what people online are reading, ever). So Mike sat down next to me and held my hand, and we went through the list and threw out anything that I'd put on there years ago and was pretty sure I was never going to read.

It hurt. It was hard. Part of the point of the list was not just the possibility of reading them, but remembering them, considering them, MAYBE reading them at SOME point. But they were hurting my heart--I was feeling responsible for those books I was never going to read.

So, in tribute to the departed To Reads, here's a partial list, created from memory, of the books we said goodbye to before we ever really got to say hello.

Strip City, by Lily Burana. A former stripper's pre-wedding last-hurrah stripping road trip across America.

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon. The true life, true crime account of a Baltimore police department on which the TV show was based. Mike told me it was good.

The French Lieutenant's Woman. I have no idea why this was on my list. I don't even really know what it's about.

Oh, God, that's all I can remember! See, that's why I have a list, so I don't have to remember these things. It breaks my heart, though, that they were forgotten so soon. If I remember, I'll write them down, I promise!

Monday, January 08, 2007

On the Road Again

Not literally, but the road to literary happiness. I spent December slogging. I worked on "good for me" stuff that was dragging me down, books that I thought I owed my time to. I abandoned about two or three books last month. I was down.

But now! Oh, the joy you'll find when you start reading things that are fun and pleasing. A Good Dog, by Jon Katz, was a light and pleasing read. The Tao of Pooh, though it did not clear up my confusion about how, in an all-Taoist world, anybody cooks a meal or cures a disease, was composed at least 20% of excerpts from The House at Pooh Corner, and, though perhaps didn't live up to the literary expectations of my English professors, was pretty enjoyable.

As an aside, it also really touched off a lot of thoughts for me about fitting square pegs into round holes, and how it sets you up for defeat. This has kind of hit home for me, and it's funny that, though I don't get Taoism, I'm grateful to it for having a relatively legitimate line of thought that makes me feel like less of an idiot than I've been feeling lately. But end of aside.

Anyway, I love this feeling of skimming along on top of the literature. Carter Beats the Devil, which I'm reading now, is a little denser, but it's still a well-paced novel about the life of a magician, so it's not dragging. I've also got something called Pink Think, which is sort of a sociological study of late 20th century femininity, as symbolized by the color pink and explicated though women's magazines, health guides, and product advertisements. So that, while pretty disturbing (according to one 1967 Cosmo quiz, I think I'm actually a boy), it's still pretty entertaining.

And, bless it, FAST-moving. December was a boggy month in so many ways. It's nice to be parasailing for a bit.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Bad Run

Okay, December has been a craptastic month in more ways than one. We could start with the illness (1) that kept me from doing most of my favorite holiday activities (2) or any particularly thoughtful Christmas shopping (3). The extremely unpleasant culmination of an extremely unpleasant workload makes (4). I have such high hopes for January, but mostly because December was so hard.

But more on-topic, it was a horrible, horrible month for books! I started some ill-fated outings this month, and I only finished about four books. And one was the audiobook I've been listening to for who-knows how long. I finished two books in the first couple days of the month, and then I just slogged through a bunch of CRAP for the rest of the time. I'm really feeling off-center because of this, though I'm trying to use the "fresh start" feeling that comes with January 1 to clean all the fog from my brain and start fresh.

So, what shouldn't you read? Well, first of all, my outing into the nun aisle at the library led to some bad stuff as well as the good stuff. There was the history of nuns' habits, which turned out to be less what I expected (a history of nuns as told through the lens of their clothing) and more of a history of scapulars, undergarments, and coifs. Sleepy stuff. Unveiled, however, was a great book, a really frank look at modern nuns, how they reinterpret a lot of the old vows to make their lives both modern and religious. In the end, I think the nun aisle paid off; since I abandoned The Habit in the middle, you can't say I wasted a lot of time on it.

But every one of those abandoned books adds to my emotional load. Like How We Believe: The Search for God in the Age of Science. This book seemed to really promise a skeptic's examination of faith, and reading the first few dozen pages, it seems to be a really fair and reasonable look at how people choose their beliefs and how they think about them. The author talks about letters he's gotten from people who argue that faith is horrible, and he seems to find those letters misguided. I felt confident.

About halfway through, though, he really revealed his attitude as something besides what I had expected. Maybe I'm not a great logician, but I feel like you can't argue with a person's personal experience of God. You can argue about the truth of the history of Jesus, the philosophical proofs that the watch implies the watchmaker, etc. And you can absolutely get into a fistfight about how your beliefs impact your behavior in the world and how you interact with others (and, usually, try to curtail their freedoms). But if someone says that the only reason they're sure God exists is because they've felt God's effect in their life, you can say you don't believe that, but you can't say "stop believing that, because I can't replicate your feelings." The standard that if you can't replicate it, you haven't proven it works for a system, but I really don't think it works when you're talking to a person about their ongoing experience.

I've completely quit reading this book. He's getting smugger and smugger, and he's not here to smack so it's all I've got. I really thought it was going to be "your beliefs are different from mine. How did you arrive at them, and how do you live with them?" But it turned out to be "oh, I see--it's because you're ignorant."

So that was a waste of time. There's also Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote's first novel. Wow, talk about a book in which nothing happens. It's sort of a coming of age story, with a lot of eerie Southern gothic trappings. I ended up skimming it--I'm not even sure I've ever done that before. It wasn't even horrible, just long and boring and yes, yes, I know there are a lot of plants in Louisiana, STOP DESCRIBING THEM PLEASE.

So that's been my Christmas. We'll see what comes up next--I'm trying Jon Katz's A Good Dog, which, while I'm not much of a dog person, seems promising. Also some of the many lovely books I got for Christmas, and the library books I couldn't resist. I need a vacation.