Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Realtime Responses to the Movie Version

Michael Cera is not the right choice for Nick.  Nick does not wear his puppy-dogginess on his face so obviously.  Also, Trish should be more oblivious and less actively nasty.

Norah's pretty good, and the rest of the gang--Nick's friends, Norah's friend, all the random club kids--are fabulous.

But Nick is just wrong.  He's not THAT insecure.

Edited to add verdict: the book was WAY better.  Less pat, more realistic, more passionate.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

No, and Nope

A couple of surrenders this week.  I swear, it's the first sign of midlife in me.  I don't have enough years left to spend them on books that I don't care about.  My standards are getting higher and higher.  I think this must be a good sign, right?

Heist Society, by Ally Carter.  This just sounded so unbearably clever--a 17-year-old girl whose parents raised her while gallivanting around Europe stealing art, has quit the business and gone legit, conning her way into a fancy boarding school.  But when she finds out her father has been accused of stealing from the wrong guy, she comes back for one last job to save her dear old dad from a vengeful mobster.

Right?  It's like, The Sting and Leverage and How to Steal a Million, and just adorable.  Plus, look at that cover.  Doesn't it make you think of Audrey Hepburn?  How can you not want to read this book and discover the clever plans that Kat and her merry band of sexy teenaged outlaws will come up with?

Alas, no.  First, I can't remember if she's supposed to be 15 or 16, but even the most jaded, globetrotting teenager is not going to have the laser focus and front-brain activity of this girl.  Second, not a lot happened.  There was a LOT of jetting around the world just to stand around talking quietly with people.  No hijinks ensued at all in the first quarter of the book.  And third, Kat just wasn't terribly likeable.  Most of her reactions seemed kind of pat.  She hates her bimbo-esque cousin, for no particular reason I can tell.  She's constantly exasperated with her friend Hale, who hasn't done anything exasperating, and is kind of adorable.  She just takes herself way too seriously.  If Kat's not having any fun, how am I supposed to have fun?  I was promised fun!

Flip side: Ethical Wisdom, by Mark Matousek.  I've really wanted to read a good book about ethics or morality, and this one looked accessible and well-reviewed.  I can't argue with accessible--it was certainly quite readable.

But I try to be pretty careful with books like this.  I often find myself convinced of any argument made with apparent logic, supporting data, and a confident tone.  The less I feel I know about a subject--and the more I think it might matter to me--the more careful I find myself being.  And this book rang a lot of alarm bells for me near the beginning.  From using cloning as an obvious example of something that's morally wrong, to citing and basing a substantial conclusion on a single study that sounds a little sketchy (infants deprived of their mother's gaze wind up insecure and emotionally damaged), this book looks less like something well-researched and more like some thoughts the author had that he backed up with some Googling and wrote down.

Now, I don't actually think he did that.  There's a lot of science cited in here, good science--mirror neurons, primate studies.  But the conclusions, the material that tied them together, doesn't read like good science or good philosophy.  It reads like a magazine article.  Right now, I'm looking for something a little better than that.

So if you have any suggestions for a good book on ethics, send them my way.  I think I'm going to go with Sophie's World at some point soon--I've heard it's a good, basic introduction to philosophy, which I haven't read any of since college.  Seriously, how did the expect us to get all this huge stuff when we were 19?  I'm much more ready to think about ideas like this now.

Then again, I had a lot more time to read back then.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Exaggerated Sigh

I want to issue a somewhat exasperated sigh about this book: Point of Honour, by Madeleine Robins.  It would be an ironic sigh, though, because the frustration I'm venting is that of someone who's found herself with yet another really excellent series of novels that she wants to instantly devour.  What a terrible burden a long and exciting reading list can be!

Sarah Tolerance is a fallen woman; she left her wealthy, honorable home with her brother's fencing master and never looked back.  Years later, her family has disowned her and she's on her own in London.  Unlike other ladies of her position (including many of her acquaintance), she hasn't become a prostitute--rather, she's invented a new role for herself: private investigator.

It's London in the early 1800s, with enough of the historical details altered to make political questions and danger to the nation a real source of tension in the story.  Queen Charlotte has long been the regent for mad King George, and each of their children has potential to inherit the throne.  Miss Tolerance is hired for a routine investigation--retrieve an object that was given by a wealthy man to his mistress many years ago and which may cause trouble for the family if it comes to light.  The search takes her on a tour of London's pleasure houses, high and low, and you learn a lot about the different things that happen to fallen women, the best and worst of life in a pleasure house, and how retirement treats them.

The mystery gets political, and there are personal involvements, and I won't bother with the plot of the story, because, although it was engaging and thrilling and really great, the mystery is not what makes a mystery.  A mystery is made by its atmosphere, its characters, its twists, its research.  And the clothes, the clubs, the friendships, the dangers--I want to read more of this book, right now.  I already bought the next one, Petty Treason, and will read it as soon as is reasonable.

I think one of the strongest things I can say about Point of Honour is that, in many ways, it's what I had wanted Maisie Dobbs to be.  I've read the first four or five Maisie books, and I wanted to like them all a lot more than I actually did.  They did a tremendous job of giving you a sense of the time and place, and how England was ravaged by the Great War, but the more time you spend with Maisie herself, the more you realize that she's not just stiff on the outside--she's actually a cold fish.  Even her relationship with her father is characterized by more good intentions than actual feelings.

Miss Tolerance, on the other hand, seems to be the type of person I wanted Maisie to be.  She is guarded, analytical, and bold, but she's also passionate.  She knows how to laugh, even if her life doesn't give her a lot to laugh at.  Maisie was in love once, but even when you're reading about it, you really don't believe it.  Miss Tolerance was in love once, too, and you can tell, even without details, that she was truly happy back then.

I think that, when you have a solemn or cranky character, one of the only ways to really like them is to be able to imagine them happy.  What would their perfect day look like, what makes them smile, what would their dream life be?  Miss Tolerance was happy teaching fencing on the Continent.  Knowing that about her, and being able to imagine that, completely made this book for me.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

In Praise

I have no personal stake in the world of adoption, and I don't presume to understand a lot of the complexities that go on in that world.  But a few of the bloggers I read and people I know from online are adoptive parents, so I've learned a little about adoption issues in the past few years.  And I'd heard passionate mixed reviews for Sam Simon's Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other, so I really wanted to read it.  I'm not even sure I can explain my opinion of the book, except to say that the subtitle says it all: In Praise of Adoption.

At first, I was sure that the book wasn't technically apologetics, since it didn't address the most of the most controversial issues that I was aware of: the wide space international adoption leaves for abuse; the potential emotional complexities of interracial adoption; anything about open adoption at all.  In fact, most of the families here are the product of good ol' closed adoptions, most conducted long enough ago that the children involved are adults now.  It wasn't taking these issues on; the book was just giving sweet anecdotes of loving families populated by fabulous children and passionate parents (mostly writers) who were brought together by adoption.  Lovely!

But you know, enough of those stories and the apologetics start to creep in.  The repeated dismissal of the notion that one might be curious about one's birth mother.  ("I don't know, maybe someday I'll be interested, but I have such a great family, why would I care?")  The frequently repeated insistence that no one has ever said anything insensitive about race or adoption to anyone he interviewed.  (Only once has anyone ever said anything to his Chinese daughter, which was when a 10 year old asked "what are you?"  But not in a mean way.)  The fabulous stories about strangers charmed by his adorable (also has he mentioned they're charming?) daughters. 

This book is really a love letter from an over-the-moon parent to his daughters, explaining how anything bad that anyone says about adoption is irrelevant, because their family is so happy.  I don't mean that to sound snide--it's just the right message for a father to give his daughters, especially when they're little.  "This may be a big, complicated issue in the world, but here in our family, no one can dismiss the love we feel for each other."  But my god, is this dismissive of others' experiences. 

There are two birth mothers in this book.  One is the ideal story; a teenaged mom gives up her baby and then makes contact when he's 30 and she's 45.  They like each other, he meets his half-siblings, and they develop an aunt-nephew type of relationship that brings everyone a lot of love and joy. 

The other story comes first, though.  A family with four adopted children produces three superstars and one druggie who decides as a teenager she wants to seek her birth mom.  Turns out birth mom's a druggie, too, and eventually the daughter dies of an overdose.  In case you miss it, the book makes the connection very clear; the birth mother was out of her life for a reason, and if she hadn't gone looking for her, maybe this tragedy wouldn't have happened.  The story is told with compassion (for the adoptive parents, mostly) and in relatively neutral language, but the point is laid out quite clearly: adoption creates wholesome, loving, upper-middle-class families.

I'm really not qualified to talk about this in any detail.  And for the record, a ton of parents I know who are really savvy, thoughtful, and devoted to adoption reform love this book.  I think, on a subject with so much murkiness and controversy around it, it can be really reassuring to be reminded that, hey, this isn't all murk and separating babies from their first mothers and ugly privilege.  This is also families who cherish each other and produce awesome kids, just like any other families.  There is a place for this story, an important one.  I just feel like it's really, really important to remember all the other stories that are out there, too.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Girl And God Get In a Spat

Ah, Lauren Winner.  Author of one of my favorite love-to-hate books, Girl Meets GodSmuggish, brilliant, passionate, I love reading her books, even though they're memoirs and I don't really like her very much.  It's very much about the experience of reading for me.  So her new book, Still: Notes on A Mid-Faith Crisis, got me really, really, really excited.

I feel like I understand more and more about Winner the more of her books I read.  She talks about writing memoirs as a way of hiding in plain sight, and you can see that throughout her writing.  Her straightforward, chagrined descriptions of her own flaws and neuroses are rendered with a poetry and distance that makes this morning's freak-out sound like a memory from her distant past.  She's writing the moving story of someone with a lot of problems, and she herself is moved by the story--which is different from living it.

I think she is more direct about her flaws in this book, which I appreciate greatly.  In her previous book, she treated some of her actions as perfectly normal that seemed kind of on the edge to me--acquiring or throwing out dozens or hundreds of books with her change of faith, literally wallpapering her room with images of Jesus.  But there was a literary remove made me feel like Winner-the-author assumed I would be right on board with all the behaviors of Winner-the-character, and that disconnect really turned me off.

In this book, she's much more blunt about presenting her life as flawed.  This is partially because she's talking about a sense of distance from God, and her thesis is that, while not unnatural, this distance is problematic, where in the previous book her odd behaviors are related to her passion and therefore meet with her own approval.  This focus between my view of her and her own makes it easier for me to see her actual behavior more objectively. 

I'm not being flip or funny when I say that I see a lot of bipolar qualities in her, or at least a lot of OCD behaviors.  She admits to the latter, to checking her wallet repeatedly during a single car trip to make sure she didn't forget her ID.  At one point (in the afterword), she points out that she's still struggling with what it means to say you believe in the authority of scripture and yet to leave your husband, something scripture expressly forbids.  Her awareness of these contradictions, and the fact that she's in still wrestling with these questions, gives the book a more authentic feel to me.

I have so much to say about this book, and that's because it speaks to me.  It's not entirely her faith, though that is part of it--even having that certainty to drift from, wonder about, orbit around, reach toward, is interesting to me.  But on page after page there are ideas she presents, vignettes, parables, quotes from historians or religious thinkers that have me reacting, thinking, asking myself questions.  A Saul Bellow quote about sloth--"sloth is really a busy condition, hyperactive.....[the slothful] labor because rest terrifies them"--had me looking at my life and mind in a way that really doesn't belong in a book blog.  These moments are on every other page--poems presented in a context that makes me see the meaning in them easily, movingly, even if I don't hold the same feelings as the author.  Anecdotes that are presented without a tying thread, but that are beautifully rendered observations, literary gems, that make points I don't agree with about every human being's need for God.

I could go on and on about this, and I haven't even finished the book yet.  I don't know if I recommend it; if what she's talking about doesn't mean anything to you, if you don't find faith journeys compelling, I don't know how much you'd get from it.   But you might still get something, because damn, the girl can write.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Enormous Volumes of Fantasy

I have somehow missed Robin Hobb till now.  I'd never heard of her till pretty recently, and then suddenly she's everywhere.  So I got Assassin's Apprentice from the library.  Luckily, it's on the Kindle, so I couldn't tell how long it was, because I'm pretty sure it was enormously long.  It might have intimidated me in hardback, but I read it.  And it was awesome.

I'm always surprised by how many of these are out there--enormous fantasy novels.  I suppose you might call them epic, but it doesn't span generations, characters, high passion.  It's the story of one boy who finds himself a member of the royal household.  As the bastard son of the heir to the kingdom, he's hated, yet bound to the family.  The king puts him in training as a spy and assassin.

A bunch of stuff happens--enemies attacking the coast, the king's youngest son jockeying for power--but most of the book is about Fitz growing up, learning about royal life, and trying to do his part to hold the kingdom together.  He makes the occasional friend, but mostly he's a solitary kid with a gift for communicating with animals.

Does this sound like not much?  Most of my favorite books do.  I thought this book would be boring when I started it, but that was out the window pretty quickly.  Mostly, though, it's the story of a boy growing up kind of lonely and becoming extremely competent at things like intrigue and poisons.  Did I ever mention how much I love books about people just being competent at things?

Can't wait to read the next one.  And there are heaps more Robin Hobb books out there!  Lord, I'm never going to finish reading.  Well, back to it, I guess.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Pants Afire

I had no idea what to expect from Liar, by Justine Larbalestier.  Actually, that's not exactly true.  I had expectations, but they were unfounded, because for some reason I thought the author of this book was Laurie Halse Anderson.

I'd read one book each from Anderson and Larbalestier.  Anderson writes about high school students with complicated, challenging emotional struggles; I read Wintergirls, about anorexia.  Larbalestier wrote the Magic Lessons series that I recently started reading.  Based on the cover blurb about a high school student whose life is full of lies, and my vague memories of reading about Anderson's Speak, I rolled this book into Anderson's work.

It's not.  And I tell this whole convoluted story right off the bat because I don't want to spoil the book, so I'm going to tell you very little of what happens.  But I will say that, as unreliable narrators go, Micah is a doozie.  She's smart, winning, and tortured.  She's a teenaged New Yorker who admits to being a liar, and is something of an exile in high school.  When a classmate is found dead, her lies begin to peel away.

Now, the thing about this book is that you don't know what kind of book you're reading.  There are hints, mysteries, layers, and each one that's revealed is complicated by the question of whether it's true.  Are the hints misleading you, or are there outright lies?  And every layer that's revealed introduces a new set of questions, right up to the end. 

So at the beginning, I thought I was reading an Anderson book, about teens with emotional problems.  But as things built up, I realized I was reading a Larbalestier book, about a girl with much bigger problems than that. 

I hate to be cryptic, but untangling Micah's lies is the main point of reading the book.  She's an amazing character--blunt, brutal, needy, angry, practical, strange, envious.  Her relationships with her parents and her classmates, her perceptions of the world she lives in--she's an alienated teenager, and more.  I wouldn't like her in person, but she might be one of the best protagonists I've read about in a long time.

Fascinating, I think, is the word for this book.  And for Micah.  She's a page-turner.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Lesson Learned

When I resolve to review every book I read, I also need to resolve to post occasionally when I haven't finished anything. 

I just finished Liar, though, and I'm about to finish Assassin's Apprentice, so look for some posts very soon!