Sunday, January 31, 2010

We Have a Winner!

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe. Awesome book. I'm not too into the Salem Witch Trials (really, who is?), mostly because I find it kind of scary. But I'm starting to suspect that I'm a fan of academic intrigue-type books (cf. Allegra Goodman's Intuition). I'll take recommendations for more of those, if anyone has them.

This book was a treat. It was both tense and leisurely, modern and historical, exciting and satisfying. I can't seem to explain it without making it sound like it's something it isn't--it has supernatural elements, but it's not science fiction or a ghost story or anything. It has historical interludes and a running plot in the past, but it's definitely not an historical novel.

I think I liked that some parts of Connie's life went well while others were troubling. I liked that, while there was a lot of tension, there was no police-involved, run-for-your-life pacing. It's not a grand, sweeping story, nor a small story. It's a nice, medium-sized story.

The plot--for the curious--revolves around a Harvard history grad student who's been called upon to fix up and sell off her late grandmother's crumbling house in Marblehead. She ends up on the trail of the titular Physick Book, or spellbook. The details of academic research (just enough of them, not too many) are engaging. I like the tension around academic politics and striving. There's a young man, and a distant but loving mother.

This is not my most eloquent review--I'm sick right now and going to go lie down ASAP. But I wanted to share this, because I enjoyed this book so much.

And now, finally, I'm starting Children of God, and so excited about it. Tally-ho!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Harry Potter Doesn't Save the World

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, takes a grown-up take on the basic premise of Harry Potter--a hidden magical world, or at least school, where young magicians are whisked away to train. I'm about a quarter of the way through the book, and our overachieving, bored-with-reality teenage protagonist Quentin has stumbled into and passed the entrance exam to Brakebills, and is now a third year student at the prestigious magic college. The normal world (muggles, mundies, whatever you want to call them) feels like a pale imitation of reality now--this is where things shine brightly.

What a promising premise, right? Only the book reads like anybody's college experience--my own college experience. So far, it's mostly about getting a fancy-pants education, trying to fit in at a school that's very different from anywhere you've ever been, being academically competitive, etc. And there's not much else there. If they were studying chemistry instead of magic, pretty much nothing would be different--including the mysterious story of one character's brother's death at the school.

I just don't think this is enough to sustain a story like this. Maybe if it was intended for high school students, it would make more sense, but it lacks the perspective of a kid. It's a book for adults, but it doesn't have anything to say to me as an adult.

I presume that something else must happen. I'm about 75 pages into the book--I mean, something has to happen, right? Alice's brother died mysteriously a few years ago; Quentin doesn't know what kind of magic he'll practice. That's about all I have to go on, other than one of their classmates is gay, everyone's super-competitive, he's got an exclusive little group of friends now.

What it comes down to is that I don't know what this book is about, and I'm not loving it enough to find out. Maybe I'll try again someday, when I'm up for something leisurely, but right now I'm dying to sink my teeth in something.

So: let's see if The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is what I've been looking for. I'm pretty sure there's a college (Harvard) and some magic in it. Wouldn't it be crazy if this was everything I wanted The Magicians to be?

Friday, January 22, 2010

That Didn't Last Long

PLR, that's right, out the freaking window. I had come to the conclusion that I could work two library books at the same time as a book that I own. But I was not enjoying The Magicians, and so I decided to return it and get something different. And this is where it all spiraled out of control.

Well, first of all, I'm not even sure comics should count. But the next Fables book was definitely something I've been wanting to read, so I grabbed that, and also The Truth-Teller's Tale, by Sharon Shinn, which I have almost inexplicably been panting after for months, mostly because it seems as close as I'm going to come to getting to read The Safe-Keeper's Secret for the first time again. That tells you something about how that book has stuck with me--again, pretty inexplicably--it's a very small, domestic book.

But anyway, those, plus The Mysterious Benedict Society seemed like enough. But then I saw the Flight anthologies on the comics shelf, and if you haven't seen these, they're charming. Each one is just a collection of short comics, loosely based on the theme of flight, and they're exactly the kind of venue for short, simple comic book storytelling that I'm pleased to see. So I got one of those, and I might have to ask for another one for my birthday sometime.

But I'd been thinking, after my wrap-up last year, that I've been reading too much YA, letting myself slide into the easy place of fantasy for a lot time. It occurs to me to kind of forgive myself for that, since finding time to read at all with the baby is pretty impressive, and finding time to read impressive things would be impossible. But I wanted to get a Grown Up book to replace The Magicians. The one I wanted, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, was checked out--or so I thought. But the children's room librarians were chatting about it as I watched Adam sprint back and forth between the picture books, and suddenly I was talking to them, and one of them ran upstairs and found me the speed-read copy and here I am, with more books than I can carry.

I'm still reading and loving Candy Freak from my personal shelf, and I still intend to read one of my own books at any given time. But my good intentions--gone. Poof. Kaput.

Up next: why I'm not enjoying The Magicians.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I know you're not going to believe this, but I'm rereading Girl Meets God.

I don't think I've ever reread a book I actively disliked before. I knew it was well-written; in fact, I think one of the reasons I disliked it so passionately before is because I so wanted to like it. I love spiritual memoirs, especially those that come from the type of place that this one comes from: an Orthodox Jew (by conversion; her mother was not Jewish) comes to Christianity. She's an intellectual, with (by now) a PhD in history, who reads voraciously and name-drops the great thinkers of religion and history and really any form of non-scientific thought.

This is the person I want to read a spiritual memoir from, for two main reasons. First, as an academic, I assume that her explanations are going to be clear and well-argued. And she is an excellent writer.

Similarly, secondly, as a convert, something drew her from NOT believing in Jesus to believing. This is the piece I'm often looking for in a book like this. It's why I read C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity. How do you go from believing that the mythology* of Christianity is false to believing it's true?

These two reasons go together: I think she's going to explain this to me, and I have always assumed that there's some big piece of logic that I'm missing that makes people begin to believe something that goes against my understanding of the world, as based on the observations I've made by living in it.

But yesterday, I found the point in the book that points out my error, and explains why Lauren Winner is not the one to explain this to me. A professor of hers, an atheist, has always been confused about her religiosity--first Jewish and later Christian. "'One day you'll have to explain to me how intelligent people can believe in something that sounds like a Greco-Roman myth,' he says. 'You know: Zeus, Demeter, Jesus.'"

This is the point she makes in the book. This is how she reads that comment. "Admittedly, it is a little crazy. Grand, infinite God taking on the squalling form of a human baby boy. It's what some of the old-timers call a scandal, the scandal of the Gospel." That's what she thinks he doesn't get about Christianity--or at least, that's what she thinks is worth being bewildered about. Not the idea of believing, not just in the idea of an infinite power out there in the world, but that that power cares that you sip wine from a certain cup on Sundays, or who has sexual intercourse with whom, before or after which third party conducts a certain ceremony. And that there was a guy who walked on water one time a few thousand years ago, and now a few thousand years later, we're being foolish if we don't believe that, in spite of everything we know or have ever seen in the world.

Now, I can follow her; her argument about why God cares about our petty lives--if he cares about us at all, the only way or reason to do it would be down in the weeds of our day-to-day experience. But the fact is, she starts out believing that God is there. The whole exploration, argument, transition of the book is not learning to believe in God, in things that don't make 'sense.' It's about finding a shape for that belief. And that's why her book isn't speaking to me.

Having learned that, I'm able to enjoy the book better this time around, because I can read it on its own terms, not mine. Does this mean I've grown up a lot?

*I don't mean to be pejorative when I use the word "mythology." I only want to make the distinction between the detailed parts of belief that are about things that may or may not have happened historically that don't fit with a non-religious view of the world, as distinct from the part of religion that is about believing in things that are beyond the realm of physical experience entirely, and therefore can't be addressed by science at all.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

It Can't Be That Easy

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, by Atul Gawande, is a very short little book about how surgery around the world--in America's best hospitals and the Third World's most overworked--can have improved outcomes with a simple checklist. The frame of the book is the WHO's committee on improving surgery outcomes, given the fact that even simple surgery is statistically more dangerous than it needs to be.

It's such a simple argument, based around two points. 1) Some things are so complex that even the smartest, most talented, best trained people make silly mistakes, because there's so much to hold in your mind at every key moment. 2) Most things (like surgery) are done by a team, but teamwork is often not adequate to meet the group's needs. It's amazingly easy to establish a baseline level of teamwork with a simple, three minute introduction and briefing session before people work together.

That's the book, basically. There are interesting anecdotes about places where checklists are used successfully. (Pilots use huge numbers of checklists, and they make a remarkable difference.) You also get guidelines on putting together a good checklist. (It should be short. It should include things that need to be done and things that need to be communicated. The "pause point," where you stop to use your checklist, should be made explicit.) You get great anecdotes from different fields about places where the checklist can actually make a difference.

In general, this short book is an intriguing read. The thing that really sticks with me, though, and that I'm most glad to have read, is the author's analysis of complexity. Things can be simple, complicated, or complex. He gives examples: simple is making dinner--a few ingredients, a few steps, a few basic skills. Complicated is building a rocket to fly to the moon--lots of in-depth knowledge, lots of working parts that go together and areas of expertise. But once you've built it, you know how to do it and can do it again. The physics is there, and with all the ingredients, steps, and skills, it can be done.

Complex is raising a child. Each one is slightly different. There are no rules or laws, and there are things that affect the outcome that you have no idea are part of the project. You can do the same exact thing with two different children and get different outcomes. It can't be sufficiently broken down. Surgery, he points out, is complex. Two patients going into the same surgery, treated with the same level of skill, can have different outcomes. Their bodies are different; the differences in the surgery itself that will affect the outcome can be so subtle as to be unidentifiable. It's complex.

I can't quite explain why this discussion--why the very idea that skilled, talented surgeons need a checklist, need to run through their to-do list--affects me so strongly. I think it might be that I feel exonerated for a lot of my own failures. I'm a bright person, and when I make "stupid" mistakes, I feel like I'm failing on a really deep level. I should be able to do this, to remember that, to handle it. Sometimes, though, it's really complex. Even the best minds need help. I'm doing okay.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Where Have I Been, You Ask?

Covering my head in shame, dear reader. This whole Personal Library Renaissance--which was supposed to begin in December--is going so, so poorly.

Between reserve books that come in from the library--I've been waiting for months, and I only get three weeks with it; what am I supposed to do?--and the books that are sitting there RIGHT UNDER MY NOSE at the Storefront Library (which is closing in a week, so I have a time limit here, people!), I have not begun this long overdue plunge into my own books. And it's not getting much better--I brought home three new books from the Storefront last week.

But I'm here today to tell you, my loyal readers, that I have a new plan. I'm doing a tandem thing, wherein I read one of my books and one of the outside world's books at the same time. So far it's even working! So hopefully, my goal list of personal books to read might be winnowed down.

Right now, the pairing is all nonfiction. I picked up Covering, by Kenji Yoshino, at the library last week. It was just sitting there on the counter, so I read the chapter that sounded most interesting, and then I had to bring it home to finish it. It's a book by a gay Japanese law professor at Yale, about how, even though our society no longer expects outsiders to convert or pass, there are more insidious demands that you assimilate, or "cover" your unusual identity. That minorities are asked to "act white" to succeed, and that gay people can be out of the closet but can't kiss on the street. Women in high-powered careers who want to stay off the mommy-track need to downplay their kids, and even their nurturing sides.

It's really interesting, and if it's a little overwritten (the author was a poet before he was a lawyer), it's also very clear and analytical (he is a lawyer, after all). A lot of the analysis talks about being gay, but mostly as an example that's both visible and invisible--gay people have been expected to not be gay, or to pretend not to be gay, and now to not be too gay. Few of the other groups he addresses have historically had all three experiences.

The book I own that I'm reading is Candyfreak, by Steve Almond. It was a birthday gift, and I have to say that six months is not a bad lead time for me to pick something up, so I feel that I'm growing. It's not profound or anything, it's just about all the different, crazy kinds of candy we have in the US, by a guy who loves them all. I'm surprised by how much I like it already--he's a good writer.

I just finished a great book, The Checklist Manifesto, that I want to talk about more, but I'm going to save that for another post. I'm back, and I really hope to get back to posting three times a week. Thanks for sticking around and reading!

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Not Too Picky

I don't want to nitpick too much about this one, but I think it's interesting not to make note of it.

Last week, I finished Hangman, by Chris Bohjalian. It's one of his earliest books--his second or third, it's kind of unclear. An it was pretty mediocre, to tell you the truth--actually bordering on bad. But there were a few things that were really interesting about reading it. I guess you could put them into two categories: ways in which this otherwise totally different book is similar to his other work, and ways in which it's different.

The different is, of course, the most striking. It's not that startling to find a Chris Bohjalian book that reads like it was written by Chris Bohjalian. It is fascinating, however, to find a book that's written by someone who seems pretty clearly to have sat down at his keyboard and said, "If Stephen King can do it, I can do it."

You can see the skeleton of a Stephen King book here, and maybe a good one. You've got the spooky house, the unexplained suicide, a very King reveal at the end. But he's a realist at heart, and he missed a few beats when dealing with the supernatural. A number of characters buy the "evil house" explanation with way less proof, reluctance, and skepticism than anyone at all would have displayed. The sage old Vermonters who know about the house's history are more overtly credulous than any sage old New Englanders I know.

More surprisingly, though, there are other notes that Bohjalian hits wrong, ones that should be right in his wheelhouse. Most of his books take place in Vermont, and I've never seen him lay on the accents and the countrified talk so heavy-handedly. I have to doubt that a cop--a detective who investigates murders and presumably has been around a good number of grieving people--has actually never seen someone who responded to grief by shutting down, staring into space, having trouble focusing. He claims never to have seen that response.

And I'm sorry, but I don't care how gorgeous she is, or how unusual it is--a good, solid, professional cop does not throw all judgment aside because he's got the hots for the murder (?) victim's widow, the prime suspect. I had a hard time even liking the character after that, even though I was supposed to.

So: not a successful King book, but not a successful Bohjalian, either. I found the resolution to the story to be somewhat satisfying--at least not as unsatisfying as an ending with more realism would have been. It was just a weak story, though, all around.

I almost find it heartening, though. Bohjalian is a polished, skilled writer, a master at what he does. I haven't liked all his books, but I've never found them clunky. It's pretty exciting to see that he didn't spring full-grown into the world with these skills. Early work sucks sometimes. Practice really does make perfect; revision really can improve mediocre work. There's hope for the rest of us.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Kristy Thomas Rules The World

They are reissuing the Babysitter's Club!

To be honest, this didn't hit me as hard as it might have, since a) they published new ones up until 2000, and b) I had no idea that they had stopped. I mean, I knew they were up near 150 or so in the series--who am I to say when that happened?

Can I just say that my Dream Job Ever In Life would be ghostwriting Babysitters Club books? I want to be Kristy Thomas. She's freaking awesome. She's got ideas, she makes them happen. She's a CEO at the age of 13, and she's got the babysitting game in Stoneybrook, Connecticut sewn up. She runs a softball team in a league she started herself. Her stepfather is filthy rich, so she lives in the lap of luxury, but she keeps it real, yo, wearing jeans, a turtleneck and a sweater every day. Some things never go out of style.

So by now you may have guessed that BSC books are a serious addiction for me. They're like Pez, or maybe cocaine--once I start on a binge, I go through a ton of them in a weekend. I mean, if you skip the first chapter (where each character is described, including the preteen clothing and hairstyle porn, and the business is outlined, including the definition of KidKits and the fact that they have auxiliary members--seriously, I know my stuff). Sometimes I'll go to the library and check out six or so, and read them all in one day. It might not be completely healthy.

They're making some minor updating changes--most people no longer get perms and listen to portable cassette players. I'm curious how much they'll change the clothes--there are elaborate clothing descriptions that are used to communicate to the savvy reader who's cool and who's not, but I suspect that jumpsuits and sweaterdresses don't mean the same things now that they did then. Fingerless gloves have come back in, but they're less black-lace-Madonna than knitted-hobo-chic. So who knows?

All I know is, as soon as I'm allowed back in the library, I'm heading over stat. I'm pretty sure there's a run between 100 and 114 that I've never read that have promising titles (Stacey's Secret Friend and Claudia Kishi, Middle School Dropout). I love it!