Thursday, December 31, 2009

End of the Year Round Up

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

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

In no particular order:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year, everyone!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Holiday Greetings

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

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

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

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

And in that spirit: Happy Christmas to all!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 10, 2009

In Defense of Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

In Which Literature Is Mocked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Last One, I Swear

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 04, 2009

Knee Jerk Liberal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Discount Toothpaste

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

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

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

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

Yes. Yes, he did.

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

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

Monday, November 30, 2009

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Too Easy For A Clever Title

I mean, really, how many variations can we come up on for a post title about the book SuperFreakonomics? I'm thinking "She's A Very Kinky Book," but then I didn't want to scare off the PG-13 readers. So I'm rising above that, kids, rising above.

This book is a lot of fun to read. It's fast paced, with all kinds of interesting factual tidbits, and I love factual tidbits. I especially like when there's a lot of analysis done on my factual tidbits, and lordy then but this is the book for me. Observation after observation, details into the lives of prostitutes and psychology researchers and ER doctors.

One thing that's required, though, is to take everything in here with a grain of salt. Here's the thing: as an introduction to a way of thinking--the economic way of thinking--this book is great. I sometimes get offended at how people doing psychological economic analysis try to reduce everything to motivation, because the language used to talk about motivation sounds so morally void, but if you forget about all the moral/ethical connotations of the language and remember that we're talking about and using the language of economics, I can let that go.

But for all the elaborate research they do, sometimes they seem to jump the gun on getting to their conclusion. Example: the claim that drunk walking is more dangerous than drunk driving. This is based on a ton of data about number of drunk driving accidents/fatalities per year, number of drunk walking accidents/fatalities per year, number of miles driven drunk, etc. And then, to make a conclusion, they make one "little" assumption: that the proportion of miles walked drunk to total miles walked per year is the same as the proportion of miles driven drunk to total miles driven per year.

Now, the anecdote is still interesting, and it's still educational to follow the logic process through and learn how to use data as an economist does. But please don't tell me that I should let my friends drive home drunk instead of walking because it's safer. It's not just amusingly counter-intuitive, it's downright wrong.

Sometimes my logical criticisms and my icky-feeling criticisms get mixed up (especially when they try to quantify morality), but I'm going to let all that lie and say how much sheer fun I'm having reading this book. So debunk away; I won't vote based on their findings, but I'll read their next book, guaranteed.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Common Theme

I've been trying to articulate what's going on that kind of annoys me with the two Jennifer McMahon novels that I've read. My attempts to put it into words have never quite hit the issue quite on the nose. Whenever I describe the problem, someone comes up with a book that fits that exact description but isn't so damned troubling. So let's try this again.

Her first book, Promise Not To Tell, confused me a little when I was reading it. It was a strange mishmash of older-woman-reflecting-on-her-troubled-childhood, returning-home-to-take-care-of-Alzheimer's-suffering-mom, murder, ghost story, and probably some other stuff that I'm forgetting. I remember saying to Mike that if I could figure out if this was the kind of book where a) the ghost might be real, b) the hallucinations of the demented woman might be real, and/or c) the murderer is going to be one of the innocent-seeming-yet-recurring-for-no-particular-reason townfolk, then I would enjoy the book better.

In the end, it turned out the book was all three. The end was satisfying, kind of, and it made me suspect that if I had known it was going to be that kind of book, I would have enjoyed it more. So when I saw Island of Lost Girls on the shelf, by George, I thought, I can test my theory!

My theory, sadly, appears to have been wrong. I didn't hate Island of Lost Girls, but I was just as adrift about what was going on. It's the bones of a mystery novel with the flesh of an introspecting, coming-to-grips-with-troubled-childhood thing, but the graft is poor and neither one really works.

The thing is, I think there are a lot of great mysteries that are all about the main character, where the mystery itself is practically a MacGuffin, just an excuse to tell the story. I feel like I'm maligning those books when I complain about this one. But it's a real flaw here. The ending of the book made me feel like the author thought she was writing something entirely different than what I was reading--I was reading a book about a directionless young woman who witnesses a kidnapping and starts poking around like an amateur detective in order to try to feel like she's making something of a life she doesn't know what to do with. The author seemed to think she was writing a mystery, in which the question of who did it is a strong support for coming to know the characters and circumstances.

Ugh--I still feel like I'm not explaining this well. It wasn't a bad book, but it wasn't as good as I wanted it to be. If I think about the mystery plot alone, it was actually a pretty good story. But the vitality of a mystery was missing, somehow.

Also, I have no idea why there's a frog on the cover. Whole book is rife with rabbits.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Quota Failure

I have to say, writing a novel is really eating into my reading time. I've only finished three books so far this month--it's really quite sad. On the upside, though, I'm right up to quota on my word count for my awful, awful, awful novel.

So I finished Taking Terri Mueller, which I have been looking at with interest on bookshelves for, literally, over 20 years. I remember it in my middle school library. The cover is positively iconic--the girl in a puffy vest, long hair pulled back at the sides, standing in a phone booth. I really enjoyed it. It was a thoughtful, emotional book about a girl who finds out as a teenager that her mother is not dead, as she had thought, but that her father took her in a custody dispute when she was young.

The book does an excellent job of dealing with the reality of the situation without getting into blaming. At various times I wanted to yell at the characters for doing such horrible things to each other, but the book doesn't dwell on that. And it really makes you think about how far we've come on subjects like divorce--co-parenting is not unheard of, and fathers have rights, too. (Though don't get me started on my brother's friend who lost a custody battle when his awful ex moved a thousand miles away, in spite of her own mother testifying on his behalf.)

Anyway, I read the book in honor of the late, great Norma Fox Mazer, whose Silver has always been one of my favorites. She was an iconic name of YA writing, even though I haven't read that many of her books, and she passed away recently. So thank you for much, Ms. Mazer.

I'll keep you guys posted, and I'll be back in December with more regular updates (God, I hope!).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I'm Doing It Again!

Help! Stop me! I just started two new books today! Augh!

Does My Head Look Big In This?, by Randa Abdel-Fattah, about an Australian Muslim girl who decides to start wearing the hajib to school, and Taking Terri Mueller, a classic I've never read by Norma Fox Mazer, in honor of her recent passing. Silver is one of my favorite YA books. We'll miss you, Ms. Mazer.

I have 300 more words to write tonight. Company of Fools is due Friday; Forest Born is due Saturday. Help!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Still Reading

I feel like I've been reading Company of Fools forever. I kind of have--not forever, but I've had it for months. I renewed it as long as I could, returned it, checked out another copy, and renewed that until it's due next week. And I'm still just over halfway done. It's not that it's a hard read, but it's very dense, and very emotionally dense. It's a road trip book, I guess, kind of. Across England, during the plague. It's grim and mysterious and fantastic and really quite lovely. I often have to put it down after only a few pages to digest what just happened. It's a long-term book, I'd say--everything unfolds very gradually, and it's incredibly rich and layered because of that.

The story is about a group of travelers who happen together and are trying to find a place to spend the winter, safe from the plague that is spreading quickly across the country. So far they haven't, and they're still on the road. It's an amazing portrait of the time--musicians, relic-sellers, storytellers, a painter, a midwife. I wish I had more time to read it. I might just have to return it and check it out yet again, just to keep going.

Sadly, this means my count for the month is low. I'm also sort of reading Island of Lost Girls, by Jennifer McMahon, which appears to be another not-bad book from the author of Promise Not to Tell. I think I'll like this one better, having read the first one and knowing that yes, this is the kind of author whose ghosts are real and whose murderers are one of the many potential suspects we meet along the way.

I'm also trying to get into Forest Born, the new Shannon Hale. It's just that Company of Liars has me so caught up, I don't have time for other books.

And, for the record, I'm right on track with my word count--15,300, shooting for 17,000 by the end of today. It's really awful, guys. Really.

I just got a sense of deja vu, and now I have the feeling that this post is basically the exact same post I wrote a week ago, since I'm reading the same books and all. But the baby's crying, so I'm going to post it anyway and hope you'll all forgive me. I'm planning a Personal Library Renaissance for December, so that'll be good for a laugh, right?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

What I've Been Busy With

Sorry I haven't been blogging--I've been writing. My NaNoWriMo work is just horrifically awful, but I'm really trying to take the approach that this is the point. It's okay if it sucks--the point is to do it. I really think I'm a better writer than this, but the only way I'm able to make myself do it is just to go, so go I shall, and may God help the English language.

Today, though, I was busy having a library adventure--I led my first every storytime at the Chinatown Storefront Library. And may I brag a bit and say I rocked the joint? It was a small group--two kids stayed for the whole thing, and two others dropped in for part of it. But I read Bear Snores On, which I know by heart and which has the easy laugh of a good snoring sound effect. Plus, Laura Jean Miller did all the prep work, so I had a little song to sing, a game to play, and a craft project all lined up. One of the kids was very shy, but another was all about making animal noises with me when we did the second book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? And Shirley, who did the Cantonese translation that makes our storytime bilingual, was great, doing animal imitations with the best of them. For a small group, we had a lot of fun, and I totally knocked my first storytime out of the park. Thank you, thank you.

I'll be back with an update on what I'm reading shortly. Right now, I have to go back to writing the love story of a mysterious girl who may or may not be a gypsy and the young lord of the manor whose title rests heavily on his rippling, manly shoulders. I swoon--not from romance, but because (did I mention?) it's SO BAD.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Too much of a good thing can be an awesome thing. All my favorite YA fantasy-type authors have new books out right now, and a bunch of them have been sitting here ticking away with their non-renewable due date countdowns.

I finished Fire, which I liked even better than Graceling. When I read Graceling, I wasn't sure at first, because the beginning read like it should have started earlier, and there was a lot of backstory crammed in. But once it got underway, holy cow did it do a good job. Fire, I thought, did a good job at all the things Graceling did well, without its flaws. Both books are very character-centered, with very different issues.

In Fire, the main character has the power to control people's minds. She can control this power, but what she can't control is their reaction to her appearance, which causes people to become enraptured, sometimes to the point of violence. It's a terrifying power, one which she watched her father wield with great cruelty, and it has caused her to spend her life trying to stay out of everyone's way. When circumstances change, she has to confront the moral questions that her power raises very directly. All these questions and character explorations are beautifully handled, and no easy answers are presented. I was so thrilled with this book.

Sea Glass, on the other hand, I sent away without reading. This was only in part due to the due date. From the second book of hers that I read (Magic Study), I knew that Maria V. Snyder was not a brilliant writer. What is brilliant at, however, is storytelling. Her books are paced so fast, and her stories told so directly (and in the first person) that it's possible to get all the way through multiple books before you realize she's not the greatest writer. This time, however, I didn't get past page five. I think it was the backstory part--the beginning bit where they fill you in on what you might have forgotten about where last we left our hero/ine. That's always a dangerous time for a book, and this one totally lost me there. I'm sad, but I think I'm going to ask for Poison Study for Christmas, because I liked it so much, so I'll just try to live in the past.

I also have Forest Born, Shannon Hale's new Bayern book, in my bag. That one is ticking away, too, but I haven't started it yet, because I got all caught up in A Company of Liars, which I started ages ago and had to return because it was long and I started late. But it's so good, and I'm enjoying it so much that I'm taking my chances with Shannon Hale. I'm sure I'll finish it in time.

Liars is a medieval road trip novel, and if that doesn't sound uncomfortable, let me just add two words: black plague. It's dreary and creepy, but there's such a good sense of mystery, and the narrator is so likable that I just can't put it down.

So this is where I stand. There are other pots on the fire--not even counting the BOOK that I appear to be WRITING (how freaking weird is that to type?)--and I'll try to keep blogging, if I can keep up my word count on my book. I should give it a working title so we can discuss it properly. Somehow, though, I just can't.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Fool

Others have told me how good Christopher Moore is, and I was always skeptical. I've been thinking about why, and I realized that I used to be skeptical about Terry Pratchett, too, before I read one of his books and realized how much meat there was to it.

And I think that's the essence of the problem; I mistrust a comic novel because I assume that comedy will be all there is. I'm not into slapstick, and I get really annoyed when a story doesn't make sense because the author's too busy being funny. I think this is the flip side of my mistrust of so-called "literary fiction." Something good has to happen. It has to fit together and make good sense, both practically and emotionally.

Holy crap, does Christopher Moore pull it off. I am fine with suspension of disbelief, and if this Britain isn't historically accurate, it's some damned fine worldbuilding. I try to keep this blog clean for the kiddies, so I won't tell you about my new favorite swearword, and I won't go on as long as I could about how absolutely FUN Pocket makes the F-word sound. I've been laughing out loud on the T.

I'm tempted to ask why you people didn't tell me about this guy before, but Brenda did suggest Lamb a long time ago, and I'll admit I was suspicious. Now, of course, I'm running right out. And trying really, REALLY hard not to end this post with a swear.

ps. JMLC, any other favorites of his?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Quick Updates

1) The Safe-Keeper's Secret did not follow the iffy track that I was worried it would follow--though it didn't renounce the idea, either. Sorry I can't comment further without spoiling it, but I will say that it's overall a really wonderful book. I'm excited to have discovered Sharon Shinn.

2) The librarian was kind of rude to me today. I bent over when I didn't realize she was behind me and bumped her with my butt. For the record, I was bending over to keep Adam from pulling all the videotapes off the shelves. Anyway, she harrumphed at me, and I quickly and abjectly apologized. She IGNORED the apology and kept walking, so I called another one after her. She ignored that one, too. Not a nod, not a "sure," nothing. This was the children's librarian, for crying out loud.

3) To end on a positive note: I went to the library for half an hour and did not check out ANY books for myself! I got some picture books for the baby, but that only seems fair, since I returned all his other library books--including Karma Wilson's Moose Tracks, which nearly broke my heart. But NO books for me. I'm very proud of this.

So in short: two out of three ain't bad.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

An Up Note

I'm having a fabulous streak right now with the books I'm reading. It's been a long time since I've had this much trouble deciding which book to pick up when I have a minute to read, but what an embarrassment of riches!

Fool, by Christopher Moore. I will admit to never having read King Lear. I guess for a lot of people this wouldn't be something to be ashamed of, but I did take a Shakespeare class in college, and I was assigned to read it, and didn't. Knowing me, I probably read the first scene, but never got any further. So while I know the story pretty well--crazy old king asks his daughters to earn their inheritance with flattery, Cordelia refuses, madness and death ensues--I'm a little foggy on the details. I read A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley, which is based around the Lear story, but it ends very differently. I should watch Kurosawa's Ran sometime, too, and I could become the world's foremost expert on Lear who's never read nor seen Lear.

Am I babbling? Anyway, Fool is a novelization of the events of Lear as told by his fool, Pocket, who (if I recall rightly from class discussion) is a major character in the play. It's bawdy and funny and authentic and modern and really ripping good stuff, and I'm having a blast with it. I would not have expected it to be my wavelength, but it totally is.

A Hat Full of Sky, by Terry Pratchett, is the second Tiffany Aching book, the sequel to The Wee Free Men. I would say it's not quite as good as the first one, but by that I mean I LOVED the first one, and merely love this one, so I don't think it's much of an indictment. It's definitely a step scarier than the other, and there's a little less time spent with the Nac Mac Feegle themselves, but I've never been let down by Terry Pratchett yet. It's so nice to have a go-to author who can be relied upon for humor AND story.

The Safe-Keeper's Secret, by Sharon Shinn, was something I picked up after getting a recommendation for another book by the same author, set in the same world, called The Truth-Teller's Tale. Since I began writing this entry, I've neared the end of this book, and I'm worried about the direction it's headed in. But since I'm not sure what's going on exactly, and I don't want to spoil it, I won't say anything except that I have thoroughly enjoyed it. It's the story of a woman who is a Safe-Keeper, someone to whom you can tell your secrets and know they'll never be told out of turn, and her children--one by birth, one adopted, and the mysteries of their parentage. It's a domestic story, about growing up and growing old how people live together, and it's just so interesting and lovely and well-written, and I can't wait to read the rest.

So, high marks all three. I'll let you know if The Safe-Keeper's Secret goes totally off the rails, but I probably won't tell you why. Anyone who's read it, though, is welcome to let me know what they think.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Out of Character

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick, seems on its surface to be exactly the kind of book I would hate. Thematically, it's about how the human condition is ruled by lusts of the flesh. In language, it uses every possible poetic way you can say "lusts of the flesh," "delights of the body," and "sensual pleasures." Now there's a combo to set my blood boiling, right?

I might not be a good enough writer to make my point with examples like that. I have a hard time with "literary" novels, which we've been over here. But part of my awkwardness with them runs up against the fact that I have trouble telling the good ones from the bad ones. This is largely due to the fact that books that are "good" and ones that I enjoy do not reliably create a large segment in the Venn diagram.

So overall, here are the general facts of the case:

The book was extremely descriptive, and a lot of time was spent on the emotional state of the characters. This is generally a bad sign, but there was so much action going on on that level, and so much history revealed in those parts, that it worked surprisingly well for me.

The prose wobbled between rich and florid. These long and lavish descriptions were mostly successful at capturing what they intended to capture, but they definitely get all worked up and fling themselves overboard at various points. I can say with 80% confidence that an outside source would agree with me on that assessment.

The theme of the book is that physical passion is an irresistible force that will mess you up no matter what you do with it. Sex sex sex, and there's nothing to be done about it, is the nature of the human condition.

Plotwise, we have a man in the early 1900s who advertises for a wife, and gets a woman with a past that she's hiding. He has lived a sterile, hyper-controlled life since his first marriage ended in tragedy, and he has suddenly decided that it's time to start fresh, with a new wife and an attempt to reach out to his estranged son.

He thinks about sex as much as an adolescent boy, which is why he lives in an iron vice of his own willpower. She has spent those same years doing all the things he's been thinking of, and is trying to hide that. They find some solace in each other. The plot is complicated by his long-lost son. We learn how each of them came to this place.

There's drama. There's a weird running theme about how people in Wisconsin tend to go crazy because of the long winters. As I'm writing about this, I think I'm talking myself into liking the book more than I initially did. And it's definitely not bad. It's just strange, very strange, and while I don't regret reading it, I'm not sure what to make of it.

Okay, having thought about it, I'd put my opinion this way: I think the author did an excellent job painting the internal landscapes of these people for me, but they are people who are motivated by things that I really don't quite comprehend. So even though he makes me understand, there's a level on which I can't really empathize deeply enough to love the book. That's what I thought of it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Project Trackback

Okay, so I'm trying a thing, and I'm really excited. I've made up a bunch of cute bookmarks with the LibraryHungry URL on them, and whenever I return a book to the library, I'm going to put a bookmark in the book. I hope that whoever checks the book out next will come here and leave a comment. I'm curious how often my favorites get checked out, who's reading them, anything people would be willing to tell me.

I love the idea of the very real connection between people in the solitary act of reading. I always love the little signs in library books that someone else has been here--a grocery list, a blank envelope. Sometimes I'll find one of the printed receipts the library gives and get all excited that the last person to read this book checked out two other books I just read! And then I'll realize it was my receipt and I forgot I stuck it in there. And I get embarrassed and tell the story to the internet.

I hope the library doesn't get mad, though. Technically it could be seen as advertising, and I bet the library wouldn't like it if I went through the stacks and stuck a take-out menu in every third book. I hope they'll let this slide, though. It's done with love!

So--for any new readers out there, welcome to LibraryHungry, and to Project Trackback. Please, please leave a comment, even just a short one telling me what book you checked out, and what library. I don't keep track of whether I got something from the BPL or somewhere in the Minuteman system. I'd love to know who's reading what. And welcome! I hope you enjoy the show.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Storefront Library

A couple of exciting things going down; I'm going to be volunteering at the Storefront Library in Chinatown. This is a temporary library that is being put up for three months by Boston Street Lab (with the help of a lot of other local organizations). The idea is to demonstrate both the need for a branch of the BPL (which the Storefront Library is NOT) in Chinatown and an example of the kind of thing that can be done with empty space in a city to activate empty space and improve a neighborhood.

It starts next week and I'm very excited. So far I've just had orientation, and I don't know much except the people involved are great and the space is absolutely lovely. I'm looking forward to working on it. Stop by sometime--it's right next door to the Chinatown RMV.

I'll keep you all posted on how it goes. It's my first Real Library Gig. Go LH!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

No Excuses, No Apologies

Is there anything more boring than a blog post about why you haven't posted to your blog in a while? Thought not. So.

Catching Fire was pretty awesome. There's almost always a point at the beginning of a sequel where you're kind of adrift. You're reading it because you liked the first one, but it's a whole new book, so you're kind of adrift in new-book land. There's the awkward hop-step when entering any book, like trying to get on a moving sidewalk. But with a sequel, you already read the first part of the story--you know the characters and the author. So you aren't expecting the ground to change--like stepping from one moving sidewalk onto another. Not smoother, and in fact, maybe a little rougher. This effect is often intensified by Backstory and Exposition, which can be awkward and painful if you just came off the previous book--like the time a few weeks ago I told Brenda the same anecdote about my clever packing innovation (inflated sandwich bags!) twice in two days.

So there were a few pages at the beginning of Suzanne Collins' Catching Fire (sequel to The Hunger Games) where I didn't quite know what the vibe was, or when we were going to get into the meat of the story, and I was worried for us, the author and me. But then bang, here it comes, and whoosh, we're off on a train tour and starvation mode and survival and PTSD and all kinds of very real, complicated treatments of the fallout of good action adventures. Start with The Hunger Games--this stuff's worth it.

In a painful labor of--well no, not love, determination, maybe? I'm reading Dawn Rochelle, which is a collection of FOUR Lurlene McDaniels books about a character with cancer. All her books are about a character with cancer. I had a strong memory of the first one in this series, Six Months to Live*, and I wanted to reread it, just to see how it held up. Not great, is the answer. If you want to make an 11 year old girl cry, this is the book for you; if you are a lover of the English language or finely expressed emotions, not so much.

But I didn't go the easy route--no, I had to check out the four-in-one volume. And since each book is 120 pages, then dammit, I'm going to finish it. I've already read Too Young to Die and So Much to Live For. I only have the 120 pages of No Time to Cry left to slog through. Maybe this will be inspirational. At the very least, I will be Someone Who Follows Through.

Children of the Dust, by Louise Lawrence, is another post-apocalyptic book that I picked up recently. It was interesting; it told the story of a nuclear holocaust through the lives of three generations in one family--a girl who lives through it (for a little while), a relative who is born in a bunker and meets the outside world, and a future generation, where the bunker people emerge to meet up with the mutants who have adapted to the new world. It wasn't bad--it was interesting in a thoughtful way--but it wasn't compelling at all, and I won't tell anyone they must read it. I also felt that, while the ending was appropriate to the story, some of the developments that happen at the end are a little pat and therefore flawed.

Anyway, that's where I am. I'm going to do something fun next and read A Hat Full of Sky, by Terry Pratchett, and then some of the other piles and piles of books that are stacking up around me. Don't worry about me, team, I'm still out here going through all these books for you.

*Point of order: at no point in this book is the main character or anyone else told that they have six months to live.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How I Feel About Books

I've never done this before, but this post at The Rejectionist explains how I feel about a lot of literary fiction.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Nautical Happenings

In honor of National Talk Like a Pirate Day, I have been planning to post a selection of piratical books that I have enjoyed.

You might not know this based only on my reading habits, but I am really big into swashbuckling. Give me high boots, a poofy shirt, and a skinny sword any day. It doesn't show up in my reading as much as in the movies I like, but still, in my heart I am the swooning maiden on many a Harlequin cover, as long as there's a ship in the background.

So let me give you a little taste of some of my favorite pirate books, for readers of all ages, in no particular order.

The Sweet Trade, by Elizabeth Garrett.
This novel covers the well-documented and oft-accounted story of Mary Read and Anne Bonny, two notorious female pirates of the 18th century. I have a vague idea of the parts that are literally factual, but I don't know how much of the personalities are captured.

I do like, though, that the book contains another of my favorite tropes--the girl-disguised-as-boy. If I remember correctly, Anne Bonny is just a swashbuckling lass tooling around with Calico Jack and his pirate crew, and Mary Read was a sailor who had been disguised as a man for years and living a soldier's life, and who eventually fell into pirating.

Another worthy thing about this book is the sense of balance it gives. Pirating is not seen as glorious and delightful--a lot of their crew are drunks and louts, a lot of people's lives are hurt. You see the freedom and the violence, and I think that's an unusual balance to find in a pirate book.

The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists, by Gideon Defoe.
British humor, Charles Darwin, an a great deal of ham. There's some cross-dressing in here, too, used to more humorous effect. The Keystone Cops on the high seas. Very funny, and you should read this.

I Love My Pirate Papa, Laura Leuck.
This one is for the little kids--a picture book about a little boy and his stuffed hippo, and the life they lead on the pirate ship where they live with his Pirate Papa and his fearsome crew.

Under the Jolly Roger: Being an Account of the Further Nautical Adventures of Jacky Faber, by L.A. Meyer.

This is the third in the Bloody Jack series, but I include it because it actually involves privateering. Jacky knows her way around a ship, and these books are all funny and delightful and full of swashbuckling and hijinks. This is one of those series where I sometimes wonder why all books aren't like Bloody Jack. Kris, if you're reading this and you've never read this series, you should go out right now and do it.

Okay, the hour is getting late, and if I want this to make it online on the actual occasion of National Talk Like a Pirate Day, I need to hop to it. If anyone has swashbuckling book recommendations for me, though, I'll take them with thanks!


**Correction and apology:
it's INTERnational Talk Like a Pirate Day. So sorry, to all those non-American pirates out there!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Ladies and gents, Adam and I went on a little adventure to Lexington's Cary Memorial Library today, where we saw the Most Glorious Children's Room Ever, were chatted with and helped spontaneously by two separate employees, AND acquired a copy of Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins. I have died and gone to library heaven, and it's on Mass Ave in Lexington.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Like Mint in a Mojito

Which is to say, muddled.

(How far won't I go, ladies and gentlemen, for a post title?)

Maisie Dobbs (post-WWI British mystery), The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (post-WWII British epistolary novel), and Q's Legacy (sequel to a post-WWII British/American epistolary memoir) are getting all befuddled in my head.

I'm reading about the woman who published 84, Charing Cross Road (which you MUST read if you haven't--it takes an hour and it's so charming), and then I'm reading a book of letters from a writer to a reader that take place in the same time period as 84, CCR. The characters in the novel Guernsey Literary are getting mixed up with the bookshop owners in 84, CCR. When Juliet said she was going to visit Guernsey, I became convinced she'd never get there, after decades of dithering. But no, that's Helene, not Juliet.

And then, just when I get all into these Nazi occupation stories, I put on my audiobook and forget that the Germans were Huns to Maisie--there were no Nazis yet. I keep wondering what happened to all the small town characters I'm thinking of--what's going on with Amelia? Oh, no, wait, she's in the other book.

Up next: Disney movies of my childhood: Pollyanna and Escape to Witch Mountain. Don't think Haley Mills isn't going to dance through my dreams tonight.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Follow-Ups and Conclusions

1) The Family Man, by Elinor Lipman, is that elusive beast that I've long stopped looking for--a book in which you like the characters and nothing awful happens to them. I used to sort of lament that you never got to know your favorite characters when their lives are going well, because only when things fall apart do people write novels about you. Once, I found a book in which the characters are all good folks to whom good things happen: Three Wishes, by Barbara Delinsky. It was really, really awful.

But The Family Man is more about little bits of drama, rather than crisis. Admittedly, it makes for somewhat less than compelling character development, but there's a nice plot, and enough tangles and annoying people to keep you reading, but never to the point where you're getting furious. I was wondering for the first third if someone was going to die suddenly to make it more intense, but no--it's just a fun book.

2) Maisie Dobbs and I are good friends now. Audiobook totally worked for that; she comes across as being solemn instead of a dead fish. I never quite noticed how often she touches people on the arm, though, and I'm still not sure I'd like her in person.

3) I've missed Catching Fire again! When I checked in before heading to Cambridge yesterday, it was gone. At least, though, I know that they're keeping a browse copy there. If I check every day, there's a good chance that I'll be able to run over and snatch it up before someone else does. Brenda, be ready to run on my signal.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Quest for "Fire"

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins, came out last week; it's the sequel to The Hunger Games, which was an action-packed YA read from last year. The waiting list is outrageous--25 people waiting for five copies at the BPL (three of which are on order, rather than available), something like 215 waiting for 40 copies in the Minuteman system. So I developed a little quest for myself.

See, a few branches will have "local request only" copies, intended for browsers, so that we tricky reserve people don't suck up all the copies for the first six months. Chelsea public library had a copy like that, so last week Adam and I set out to find Chelsea public library.

I've been to the neighborhood two or three times--driving a friend to the garage that was fixing her car, picking up a piece of furniture from Craig's List. It's a little convoluted--a lot of three way intersections at weird angles with one way streets and no signage. But it's very downtown, so no one's driving too fast, so you can creep along and figure things out.

My main problem, it turned out, was that the library doesn't have their own website. Their info is on the City of Chelsea website. Because of that, Google coughed up the wrong address for me, and somehow I ended up at City Hall instead of the library. I headed home in frustration, only to realize that the library is across the street from City Hall, and if I'd turned my head thirty degrees to the right, I'd have found it.

A week later, armed with better information, we headed back. Found the library, ended up a mile and three neighborhoods away due to one way streets and poor parking options, but we managed to circle back around and find a spot by cutting across three lanes of traffic. Sweet.

The library itself is a creaky old building, tiny and very, VERY weirdly organized. YA is a shelf in the "Family Room," which is also where nonfiction is. Fiction and nonfiction are either misunderstood or (I like to think) simply mislabeled. Fiction has its own room, and then there's something that's either a media room or else a staff room; hard to tell.

The personnel were attentive, but strange. The first lady seemed to be having a different conversation than I was, albeit on the same subject. I would say something like, "Well, there's her other book, but I don't see the one I want," and she'd say, "Oh, you found it?" Or I'd say, "Well, here are the C authors," and she'd promptly jump a few feet down to the G's. Or I'd say, "Is there a computer I could use to check the catalog?" and she'd say, "Maybe you should check the catalog." It was kind of surreal.

Then the librarian at the counter seemed intent on figuring out whether they had bought the book (looking through book receipts) in spite of the fact that it was in the catalog. Finally we just established that the book had been checked out, the catalog was wrong, oh well, and I went home, escaping with my sanity and a handful of books that the Disney people made movies out of in the '70s (Escape to Witch Mountain, Polyanna).

I'm on the waitlist, but the Central Square branch of the Cambridge library has a browsing copy, and Adam has only been to 8 libraries. Our goal was 10 by his first birthday--Central Square it is!

Monday, September 07, 2009

On Again, Off Again

Maisie Dobbs and I have that kind of relationship; in real life you'd say it was unhealthy. As it stands, though, I think this time we've really found a way to make it work. I really feel like we've figured out how to be together without my calling her a cold fish and her treating any casual attempts at conversation with humorless formality. I really feel like we've found each other's wavelength.

The secret? Audiobook.

I really do find that the audiobooks can overcome certain types of problems, either issues with the writing, or with my personal ability to connect with a book. Specific kinds of humor, especially the kind that is so dry as to be easy to miss, come across much better with a speaker to point them out. Similarly, Maisie's precise and clinical personality seems much warmer because the narrator is able to put the warmth into her voice.

It's wonderful. Like we've found each other again. Okay, maybe I'm not in love, but the spark is definitely there.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Lady Lit, or I Ain't No Chick

Sometimes I get Elinor Lipman and Susan Isaacs confused in my head. They generally write quite different books, and their styles are fairly different--Isaacs goes for either light adventure stories or epic life-spanning personal histories with lots of dry verbal humor. Lipman is a little more "literary," in that her stories are generally smaller, more personal family stories (usually with a strong romance plot), with fewer dry jokes, but an intelligent and witty use of language. I'm not quite sure why I get them confused.

Anyway, I like a lot of Isaacs' work, but I haven't liked her more recent books. and Shining Through and Lily White are two of my frequent re-reads, but I found Any Place I Hang My Hat to be lackluster to the point of boring, and I couldn't even get past the first chapter of Past Perfect (ex-spy-turned-TV-writer-turned-neurotic-New-York-wife-and-mom, I'm exhausted). And somehow, my constant confusion made me doubt Lipman.

I should not have. Her expertise is in writing the character who sweeps into the life of her straightlaced protagonist and turns their life upside down. In Then She Found Me, it's a long-lost biological mother; in My Latest Grievance, it's the narrator's father's first wife. These books make me almost twitchy with anxiety--I like my neatly ordered life and would never dream of letting anyone like Isabel from Isabel's Bed into it--I love them, too.

So when I started The Family Man today, I was really nervous. Partly because I had my lingering disappointment with Susan Isaacs in the back of my mind, partly because it looked to be another book about someone who ignores what you want and everything you say and does whatever she damned well pleases with your life. But also because the jacket flap made the book sound kind of annoying. A single, fifty-something gay man living in New York reconnects with his ex-wife of many years ago and the young woman who was, for a brief time, his stepdaughter. Hi-jinks ensue.

Does this or does this not sound like kind of story where you have to watch a guy get bullied and manipulated by women who are out for his money, or having fun setting him up, or just teasing him mercilessly? The jacket copy goes on and it just sounds worse and worse, like I'm not going to like any of these characters.

But I was wrong--I love them all. The daughter, the father, even the memory of his deceased best friend. The ex is just annoying enough to complicate the plot without making me want to throw anything at all at the wall. I'm twirling blissfully around the living room, and breezing through this book. And I'll tell you, I could use a breeze, and am glad to have found one.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Greek for Beginners

I'm reading Beginner's Greek, by James Collins. Mike made a little joke about whether I'd learned any new Greek words from my book about Greek for beginners, and I had to explain that yes, I did, but that was a different book that I've had for years (a first grade Greek language workbook), and that this Beginner's Greek is a different book than that. It was a long, complicated explanation, but I got a chuckle.

Anyway, I'm only halfway through the book. It's probably inappropriate to write a review at this point, right? But I think this is the point where it's easiest to get a handle on what the experience of actually reading it is like. When I get to the end of a book, the ending will often color my experience of the whole thing.

A Curse Dark as Gold is an excellent example of this. I found most of the book to be a drag to read--it's like there was a great book in there for somewhere, but I couldn't find it. Like meeting someone who you think seems really cool, but somehow not being able to get past a superficial relationship, small talk. Then the last hundred pages were so good, I walked away thinking it was a great book. But that's not what the experience of reading it was like.

So: halftime at Beginner's Greek. The reviews I've read are so mixed, I think that the buzz might work against the book. I think it's great, but if I told you it was amazing and wonderful, you'd probably be disappointed.

It's an almost oddly simple book. It's a love story, pretty straightforwardly, with all the nice hurdles to romance that a love story needs. It uses the toolbox of literary fiction, including a lot of attention to details of environment and small anecdotes for verisimilitude. Amazingly, I find these incredibly engaging, I think because they're used very directly. Every word is used to tell you something important, rather than just a huge amount of information that drags the story down in the mundane.

Can you tell how I usually feel about literary fiction?

But what I like about the book--what I think lends to the simplicity, the black-and-whiteness of it--is that it reads almost like a fable. It is, at least in part, about fate stepping in in ways that just don't happen in real life. Coincidence, sudden realization, bolts of lightening, etc. play a huge role in the story. It's almost mythological, with sort of a dreamy solemnity.

Now, some people might say that a story like this should have an unhappy ending, to drag you back to earth. But I have to ask why you'd want to be dragged back? Wouldn't that negate the rest of the experience, the same way a good ending can negate a less-than-stellar reading experience?

I think the only way to end this book is with "...and they lived happily ever after." I'm looking forward to it.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ready to Burst

I've put off posting so long that I have too many things to say and can't keep track of them all. I guess I'll pick one. Let's see....

Terry Pratchett should write all the books that there are. I just finished The Wee Free Men, which is billed as a kids' Discworld novel. It was so funny and smart and solid, and I couldn't stop talking like a tiny blue Scotsman for days afterward. I'm just amazed by his ability to do everything that goes into a book: language (description and humor), plot (complicated and satisfyingly fitting together at the end), character, world building, everything. Funny, scary, smart, dramatic, everything. I love Terry Pratchett.

Okay, two: I've been meaning to read some Georgette Heyer forever--I have in fact checked several of her books out several times and returned them unread. Finally, finally this time I picked up The Grand Sophy. It's SO good! If you've read all the Jane Austen books and are sad that there aren't anymore, pick this up. It's not exactly like Austen, not by a long shot--because they were written more recently, the characters have a more modern sensibility--but the setting is satisfyingly similar, and the drawing room dramas and comedies are just what a frustrated Austen fan might be looking for.

Also, A Curse Dark as Gold was good, but could have been better. The first three quarters just seemed too long--each scene, and there were too many scenes, ditto paragraphs, everything. The last quarter was fabulously tight and so satisfying.

Okay, now that's off my chest. Maybe I'll keep up with my blogging!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Don't Fence Me In

I can't stand a five point rating system. Goodreads uses a five star system to indicate how you feel about your books, and it just kills me. (Roger Ebert, by the way, whose days revolve more around star counts than mine, agrees with me.) I know five stars is for awesome, and one is for dreck. I don't do zero stars because that looks like I forgot to rate it. But how do you sort out the in-between?

Goodreads offers you rollover text: 5 for "loved it," 4 for "really liked it," 3 for "liked it," 2 for "it was okay," and 1 for "didn't like it." I can handle that, I think--I try to save 5s for things that had me clutching my seat, weeping, shrieking. Anything I just plain liked gets a 4, something I didn't NOT like gets a 3--maybe I just sort of didn't care, but it wasn't bad.

Two holds a lot of, "eh, not really." Two is for a book that I don't think, objectively, is a bad book, but that I didn't enjoy at all. Or, alternatively, it's for a book that objectively is an awful, awful book, but that I enjoyed a little on some level--but not enough to transcend its awfulness. And of course, 1 is just yuck, yuck, don't ever read this. I want those hours of my life back.

But what I find, often, is that I'll finish a book, and I'll feel one way, but then when I look back at my rating a while later, I'll be shocked. I finished, for example, The Queen of Attolia, and called it something I really liked, a 4. But a few weeks later, when I think about that book, I remember loving it passionately. I want to read it again right now. It's SO good. Why didn't I give it a 5?

Or Just Ella, why did I only give it one star? It wasn't totally without redeeming qualities--I saw enough in there to run out and--rather maniacally, I'll admit--read pretty much everything else the author's written. Shouldn't it have at least gotten 2?

I think the problem is, when I'm sitting with a book, I see the complexities. I see the imperfections, the flaws. Isn't that a sad way to be? It's not that I'd always be wishing it was better, but when you analyze something technically, it loses its sparkle. But from a distance of a few weeks, I remember impressions. I remember the big moments, or the big feelings.

So is it better to record my in-the-moment reactions, or what lingers? Is what matters the experience I had then, or the memory I have now?

And for heaven's sake, why can't the scale be more reasonable? Like 1-100? Just Ella gets a 24.

Well, 23.8.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Purchasing Power

I decided to spend my 40% off Borders coupon, come hell or high water. And I got there and I dithered. I found a copy of The Thief, which I'd been wanting, but it only cost $8. Hardly worth wasting a coupon. A couple of board books for Adam, similarly inexpensive. Sure, they add up, but this is indulgence we're going for.

But then, oh then. I don't remember if I wrote much about In the Company of the Courtesan, which was, I think, the last book I finished before having the baby. It was so great. An amazing combination of character and setting, storytelling and writing. A beautiful book about a very high class prostitute in Venice in the 16th century, beautifully written and so compelling.

I have been meaning to read more of Sarah Dunant's books since then. And today, in the bookstore, I discovered that her most recent novel is about NUNS! Sixteenth century nuns. Ladies and gentlemen, it is not often that an author I already love produces a nun book. It makes me feel small in the face of the universe. I am humbled, and thrilled, and now I OWN this book!

O happy day

Monday, August 03, 2009

Pippa Greg

O, Philippa Gregory, how you've failed me! For books that are all so similar, I've had such different reactions to the three books I've read that I can't even tell you what I think of this.

I'm reading The Other Queen, about Mary Queen of Scots. The problem I'm having is that there are almost no scenes in this book. It's told by three narrators, two of whom are the couple who hosted/imprisoned Mary during her time in England on Queen Elizabeth's orders, and the third Mary herself. You follow the large events of the day--armies are amassing, court intrigue is going on--but mostly the narrators get this news through letters and gossip. Each short chapter reads like a dispatch, and rarely is there a conversation, or even an occurrence that actually takes place as I'm reading about it. I'm just not compelled. At all.

This is a far cry from my reactions to The Other Boleyn Girl (Harlequin trash!) and The Queen's Fool (action-packed chick lit!). I didn't love Boleyn Girl, but I really did like Queen's Fool very much. I had really hoped that there would be something in this book of that one. But at this point, I'd settle for a ton of steamy sex. And at least each of those books was immediate--what happened in the book was actually happening as you read about it.

But I'm halfway through. I'm loathe to quit now. I might, though.

By the way and for the record: by the end, I really loved American Wife. I think the best way to explain my change of heart is that, at the beginning, I felt like the author and the narrator shared a sensibility that I couldn't. By the end, I realized that the author and I were the ones with the same opinions; the narrator was the only one who saw things her way. It was good, in the end, to have the author on my side.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

American Husband

Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife is Alice, a bookish midwestern lady living a straight-arrow life. How does she end up with Charlie, a charming rich boy with the world at his feet and no real interest in doing anything with it?

(I'm working on keeping spoilers out of this post, and I'm doing okay with that regarding the specific events of the book, but the emotional path of the narrative is spelled out below, so be warned.)

So this is a novelization of the life of Laura Bush, and I had a hard time with it. I loved the first 100 pages, because she's such a likable character. I wonder, however much the circumstances echo real ones, how like Laura Bush she is in character. Then, she meets Charlie, and his charm and good nature win her over. Unfortunately, they totally turned me off, and I put the book down for a while.

In the meantime, Linden read it, and we had an interesting conversation. I don't want to give too much of the book away, but now that I'm further along (though still not yet done), I can see Linden's side of our argument a little better. I still hold the same opinion, though.

My opinion is that I hate Charlie. It's not just that he's clearly modeled on G. W. Bush, of whom I was and am no fan. I was able to pick the book back up by setting aside those similarities, and I could see, then how his charm could be, well, charming. But I still feel pretty solidly that I was rooting for her to dump him, even when he was still at his most adorable.

Later (seriously, I'm trying for no spoilers here), I understand Linden's assessment that it's a book about her marriage to a very flawed man. It's not about him being great, it's about him being good in some ways and not in others, and how that works in their marriage. I would push that a little further and say it's about her being married to someone who's pretty much an ass, but not such a complete ass---- that she has no choice but to leave him. So I guess I see it as being about a flawed marriage, but a marriage to a man who's somewhere worse than flawed--somewhere in the unlikeable range.

And I stand by my assessment that Alice lives precariously. She's about not rocking the boat, she's about doing things under the table, about keeping her true self--who she socializes with, the causes she donates to--off the radar of the people who populate her life. Because for the most part, her life is populated with people whose values she works very hard to respect, without ever quite getting there. She keeps her head down, she tries to see the good side of things; she wants a peaceable life, and she will hold on to that peace with white knuckled silence. She hates the fact that the country club doesn't admit Jews or blacks, but she doesn't consider leaving it, because everyone belongs there. Not because she wants to see them, or keep up with them, but because she'd have to explain to them why she's taking a stand, offend them, upset them. That pretty much sums up her marriage, too.

I still want her to dump him. I know, of course, that she won't, but I'm still rooting for her.

I think I put in more spoilers than I meant to. Sorry about that.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Welcome Home!

I went on vacation last week. I was going to bring 8 books, and at my sister's insistence ("That's a book a day, and two on Sunday") I winnowed it down to 7. Then I snuck another one in before I went and brought 8 after all.

I finished The Mysterious Benedict Society, which was clever and thrilling. I would say it's more of a sophisticated middle grade book, rather than a young adult book--I think it's aimed at 10 to 12 year olds, but those who are great readers. I read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken. A kids' classic, with some truly, amazingly terrifying scenes of (unsurprisingly) wolf chases. Also Among the Imposters, the next of the Margaret Peterson Haddix Shadow Children series, which was both slight and serious, but managed to be okay.

When I got home, though, that big dent didn't seem like much. There are still 13 books waiting for me here. The good news is that I'm excited to read them; the bad news is that due dates are rolling around.

So, right now? American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Never read Prep, but this is a very good book. The only problem I'm running into is that I'm not a huge fan of her leading man, but I'm coming around to it. I'll have more to say about it, as I go, I think. The Other Queen, by Philippa Gregory, which is not bad so far. I've found her stuff to be hit or miss, but this is okay so far. A Curse Dark as Gold, by Elizabeth C. Bunce, is a retelling of the story of Rumpelstiltskin. So far it's good, but slow--I'm about a quarter of the way through, and the book so far is just about a tough situation getting tougher, and worse, and less comfortable. No real complications, just money troubles, personnel shortages, unpleasant relatives....I could use some magic.

So, that's where we are now. I returned some books to the library and didn't check anything out at all. I'm feel all discombobulated, being gone so long, so I'm not going to go for coherence, but just post this and try to say something useful later.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Adam's Favorite Books

In honor of a regular reader who's expecting, I would like to present a short post about the books that are most popular with my almost 8 month old son.

1) Bear Snores On, Karma Wilson. For some reason, he's always loved this book. Mike and I do it with different voices, and he loves both versions.

2) Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak. I don't quite know what he loves about this one, but I think it's the pictures.

3) Jamberry, Bruce Degen. Mike reads this one with a deep bear voice, which I've taken up because I think it's why it's so popular. I love the pictures in this one, which makes it something I can read again and again.

These are the top three. He also loves any board book, but mostly to play with, rather than read. I'm a big fan of Sandra Boynton, and we have some of Dr. Seuss's more picture-heavy, word-light books in board form. So when you're shopping, now you have some tips.

And hooray for all you parents and parents-to-be!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

With Vigor and Determination

I have rescinded the permission I gave myself to read only kids' books for a while. Why? Well, I was at a party last night with some literary types, and I reached back, trying to think of something even modestly "worthwhile" that I've read in the past few months. Couldn't do it. Then I came home and looked at my lists--Goodreads, my journal--of what I've been reading, and realized that the total number of books that don't fall into the YA category in the past two or three months is about six. And at least two of those are medical memoirs, plus other assorted popular nonfiction. I guess what I'm saying is that they're still pretty light.

So, I've bullied myself into trying again. I think I realized that I'm not in the mood for Confederates in the Attic, and I don't have the intellectual hunger I'd need to get me through the political irritation of The Nine. So I'm going with American Wife, which is a novel, and apparently a good one. I don't know if it has the literary weight that would have made me feel less embarrassed not to have read (or want to read) Atlas Shrugged, but it's what I've got right now.

So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, wish me luck.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Blurb Wars

On the back of The King's Peace, by Jo Walton, is a blurb by someone named Debra Doyle. It says, in part, "The King's Peace is the novel that The Mists of Avalon should have been."

Way to take a swipe at MZB. I think it's because it's an Arthurian story with a strong woman protagonist, but a little more historically accurate, maybe? Not sure, but great.

I read a contest in a fantasy magazine once for the best blurb that you'd give if you hated the book but didn't want to insult the author. "As tight and fast-paced as Tolkein!" "This author could not have written a better book." Etc. I wish I could think of some more. Anyone?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Reader's Block

I seriously just can't read anything serious right now. Not just serious, but substantial. I have three good, worth reading books that are due back because I've had them nine weeks, and I just can't. Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine, and Tony Horwitz's Confederates In the Attic. I really want to read all three, but I can barely concentrate hard enough to keep myself into a 180 page book about a 12 year old hero, never mind a 360 page book about nine (or twelve or fifteen--it covers a stretch of time) Supreme Court justices.

I'm pretty disappointed in myself, especially since I had such good luck getting my hands on these books. But I think I'm going to have to return them and try again another day. I'm trying to aim low for a little while, remind myself that this is supposed to be fun--there's no reason to slog. It's not like I'm getting paid by the page, or the book, or the hour or at all really.

I will say that there is one book I'm giving up out of pure good sense. I like therapy books in general--nonfiction by psychologists who talk about their pet theories and their most memorable patients. I got a recommendation for a book called The Unsayable: The hidden language of trauma, by Annie G. Rogers. I checked it out, and it's very well written and looks pretty good. Then I flipped to a page at the middle and read a few lines about her asking a young patient who she trusted, who made her feel safe. Her horse was the first answer, and how much she enjoyed riding, followed by a neighbor who is kind to her. The author then elaborated on these feelings for the reader, mentioning casually the relationship between the neigh of a horse and the word neighbor. At this point I put the book down and stepped slowly away, and I hope you support me in that decision.

So: more Margaret Peterson Haddix, more Bloody Jack, maybe The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. And maybe, just maybe, I can sneak a Philippa Gregory novel past the blockade. I mean, there's nothing substantial about that, is there?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My Imaginary Favorite Author

You know, like your imaginary boyfriend, who is probably John Cusack, or maybe George Clooney or Hugh Jackman. My imaginary new favorite author is Margaret Peterson Haddix. I think I mentioned her recently--I read Just Ella, and blogged about how princesses are done all wrong. But, though flawed, there was a core of something great there, so I checked out Double Identity. But then I figured out the big plot twist after five pages. I don't know if that was because I'm not the 12 year old target audience, or if this was a flaw in the book, but I put it down instead of reading through to see what else the story had to offer.

But I decided to keep trying, so I got Among the Hidden, the first in her series. Finally, this book was great. It's a lower reading level, but sharp, serious, thoughtful, and fast-paced. The story is about a boy who lives in a world where only two children are allowed. His two older brothers lead normal lives, but he can't leave the farm and, when a housing development goes in next door, becomes confined to the house. The whole totalitarian government thing is also going on in The Giver, by Lois Lowry, which I just finished, and contrasting the two has been very interesting. The governement in the Haddix book is much less tidy around the edges, and it looks a lot more like what a real government looks like--impenetrable, complicated, everywhere and nowhere. Well rendered.

So the next time I went to the library, I went a little nuts. I found the next book in the Shadow Children series, Among the Imposters. I found another book called Leaving Fishers, which is apparently about a girl who joins and leaves a cult. I got Running Out of Time, which looks like a version of the movie The Village, hopefully better executed. And something else called Found that I don't know anything about but that's by her.

So hopefully I'll have something really intelligent to say about Margaret Peterson Haddix in the next couple of weeks. So far, Leaving Fishers is not bad, though it's a little heavy-handed. That might be, though, because the story that cult members tell potential members really sounds like that. I've read enough to suspect that.

Also, I'm going to tack this on the end because I might have a real favorite author. The King of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner, is really, really good. She needs to write another book right now so I can read it, please.

Children's Books

As a parent, I read a few children's books. I imagine and hope that those quantities are going to increase over time--right now, I'm lucky if I can discern the words on a couple of pages before Adam gnaws them out of existence, or closes the book just because he can. So while I have some opinions--Bear Snores On holds up pretty well to repeated readings, I love Sandra Boynton, Baby Einstein is drivel--I have not yet felt the need to tell you about this.

But then, I read The Amazing Bone.

When I told Mike about it, I only got that far before he gave me a look that said that the title is the punch line. I don't even want to bother with that. Any humor you find there obscures the sheer AWFULNESS of this book. It's awful on almost every perceivable level--literary, storytelling, and possibly even age appropriateness. I'm almost horrified that it has a Reading Rainbow sticker on the cover. Levar Burton has something to answer for here. The only level on which the book does succeed is illustration; they're pretty. I like the style. End of positives.

Now I have to tell you about it, don't I? Sigh. I'd rather not relive it. Okay, it's a picture book, and all the characters are different animals. Petunia is a little girl pig who skips about enjoying the day. This part goes on a long time and is not unpleasant, though it is undirected. Eventually she finds herself sitting under a tree enjoying the day, and she says out loud how she loves the whole world. A voice answers, "Me too!" Petunia discovers, under a tree, a little bone that can talk and make sounds. It belonged to a witch who dropped it by accident.

Petunia and the bone make friends. She heads home to show her parents. On the way she encounters three robbers, but the bone scares them off with loud scary noises. Then she encounters a fox who decides he's going to take her home and eat her. He's not afraid of the bone's noises, and in fact is excited that he'll own a magic bone. Petunia begins to cry.

Fox locks her in a back room with the bone and starts getting ready for dinner--sharpening his knife, stoking the fire, etc. He's having pork. It's drawn out and pretty scary--this poor pig who's like 8 years old and hoping that he'll kill her quickly before he eats her. The bone doesn't know what to do either.

Finally the fox comes in for her. As he leads her into the kitchen, the bone suddenly starts shouting nonsense words. The bone doesn't know what it's doing, it just feels compelled to shout these words. As it does, the fox begins to shrink. By the time the bone is done, the fox is as small as a mouse and runs away into the floorboards. Neither she nor the bone know how this happened. She runs home and introduces the bone to her parents and they all live happily ever after the end.

Now, say it with me: WHAT??? I don't even know where to start. Why is it a bone, not a pebble or statue or bug? A bone? I really expected to have that explained to me by the end. Also, didn't anyone else learn, in like sixth grade, the term deus ex machina? One of our characters randomly starts shouting magic words that he didn't know he knew, and it solves all their problems. That's totally how an episode of House ended last week. Great storytelling technique, is what I'm saying.

Urgh. I'm turning into a crank. But really, this book is so weird. It was published in 1976, and I have no idea how it got past an editor, except that the author appears to have published a number of books before that. I can't imagine what they look like, but I have to think they must be better than this, for him to have slipped it in the door.

Okay, I'm not all moaning. I'm rereading The Giver, by Lois Lowry, and it's really fabulous. so there's that. I feel like I complain too much, but sometimes, you just have to stand back in awe. So, William Steig, wherever you are, I'm very sorry to be so cranky, but I think you owe me an explanation about the talking bone.