Friday, November 30, 2012


I've been reading a lot more blogs lately, book and other.  In some ways it starts to feel like a responsibility, but then you find the awesome stuff and you just want to read more.

And, not that you need me to sum up the internet for you, but here are a couple of great things I really wanted to share.

First: YES, I am book obsessed.  I mean, not everyone is like this?  I count 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, and at least the first three that were added from the comments.  I don't think it will surprise anyone to hear that I tested positive for book obsession.

Then there's Worldbuilders.  This is the annual fundraiser for Heifer International sponsored by Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear.  The charity supplies goats, chickens cows, and other animals for people living in third world countries.  The bookish part of this is that a donation through their website enters you in a raffle for one of billions and billions of books that have been donated and are being raffled off.  Especially for sci fi fans and people who like collectible books--first editions, autographed copies--there are lots of cool prizes.  There are also eBay auctions of bigger ticket items.  It's a cool cause and a really big deal--they raise hundreds of thousands every year.

And then there's this post, which is one of those meme things where everyone posts on the same topic on a certain day.  But because I'm always a day late and a dollar short, I'm just going to poke my response in here with some other stuff.  The discussion is about talking to people who aren't readers, and part reads thusly: "Am I the only one who...wonders at how other people can simply NOT do something that should be so essential? Who feels almost sad that so many people seem content to go through their lives without stretching their mental wings at all?  Can you imagine NOT being a Reader? How does it shape your life? Your perception of it?  How does being a Reader affect your relationship with all those folks who are looking at it from the other side and simply can’t understand how you can sit and READ all the time?"

First, I'm very much surrounded by readers.  Most of my friends were English majors, and most of the rest are readers for fun.  Reading has drawn me to a lot of my social circle (book clubs, friends who bonded over favorite books), and I used to work at a publishing company. 

But I know plenty of non-readers, too (most of my family, for example), and I find that they get me just fine.  I am about books how they are about TV shows or movies or comics or knitting or theater or something else.  Even if they don't have the same interest in books, they understand my passion and are able to be interested enough in a good story that we can talk about books, movies, and TV shows in a way that brings us together.

But the real reason I wanted to answer this question is because of my position on the other side, as the non-enjoyer--not with books, but with music.  Most people I know are at least somewhat passionate about music, at least to a minor extent.  I never have been.  The incredulity that's in this question is something that I've gotten from a lot of people when I look at them blankly after not recognizing a band name, or when my response to "what kind of music do you like?" is "whatever's on the radio when NPR is on a pledge break."  I don't dislike music; I just don't connect with it, and that really stymies some people.  But I know perfectly well that a) there's a lot I'm missing, and b) there's a whole life to be led and music is just a part of it.

The fact is, it's a big world, and we're never going to get to all of it.  I think it's really important to really that our part isn't the only one, or even the best or most important or "right" one.  It's just different.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

More Book Club Fodder

We decided to go somewhere a little different for book club this time around.  Ruth Rendell is a crime writer who is famous and prolific and just always there, sitting on the to-read shelf.  So we picked up one of her books, A Judgement in Stone, which had been recommended by several people as one of her best.

This was a mistake, and I would not recommend this book to other book clubs.  I would probably also avoid recommending it to other readers, in fact.  And the weird thing is, it's not like it was bad at all.  It was just kind of nothing.

On the first page of the book, you're told that the Coverdale family was murdered by their housekeeper, Eunice Parchman, on Valentine's Day, and that this happened because Eunice was illiterate.  The book then proceeds through the year leading up to the event, beginning with Eunice's interview and ending with the shooting.  There are no surprises at all--obviously not the big ones, but there aren't really any little ones, either.  Honestly, this read like true crime--a lot of information, with some really good character portrayals, actually.  But knowing who lived and who died, and that all of the characters  you were getting to know were going to die (and how) took a lot of wind out of the book's sails.

Another thing that felt "true crime" to me was the way Eunice's illiteracy was hammered home as The Reason She Did This, when it's not quite true.  Eunice is definitely illiterate, and she's worried about keeping the secret and hates anything to do with writing.  But the reason she did it is because she's a sociopath.  If she had killed them because they chewed with their mouths open, that wouldn't be the reason she did it--the reason is because she's a monster.

In fact, the illiteracy thing is hammered on so hard that it ends up misshapen by the end of the book.  People who can't read think in pictures and very simple words.  People who can't read are base and brutish--reading is the center of all refinement, all civilization, and without it you are an animal who can't be trusted.  I have friends who volunteer as adult literacy tutors, and I'm pretty sure they'll tell you that's not true.  Honestly, I was offended on behalf of the non-readers of the world.

Another reason I think this book didn't click for me in particular, though, was the fact of its setting at a house in the English country.  From the beginning, it was causing me flashbacks to The Red House, a former book club choice with a similar setting.  By the end, I could use Judgement as a comparison to point out what I didn't like about Red House, but at when I started it, I could feel doubt creeping up on me, and I don't think it helped my experience of the book.

Next book club is Every Day, which I read and reviewed here already, and loved.  It sounds like the book club reviews are already mixed; that always makes a fun meeting!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Them's Fighting Words

A couple more blows in the literary fiction vs. genre fiction argument.  Really, to me, it's about defining terms; is literary really the opposite of genre?  Really?

I swear I had more things to be outraged about, but I'm sleepy.  Another day, maybe.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Pee El Are

Ana at Things Mean a Lot has declared January Long Awaited Reads month.  But we have a name for that around here, don't we?  Personal Library Renaissance!

And while I can't guarantee that I'm going to participate-because let's face it, I'm nothing if not unreliable--I do LOVE to fantasize about them.  So, on the theory that I'm going to spend January (which is to say, roughly 6 to 8 books, depending on their length and ambition), let's speculate on which of the many tempting choices I might slot into that time.

First, 100% definitely, would be The Sleeping Partner, by Madeleine Robins.  I absolutely loved the first two Sarah Tolerance books, and was quite disappointed at how hard it was to get my hands on the third one, which is not available as an ebook.  I think the author may have switched from a mainstream publishing house to a small press--to be perfectly honest, the cover of this one looks like something put together at a self-publishing place.  But it looks like it's actually a very, very (very) small press--reading between the lines of their mission statement, possibly founded by writers who'd been treated poorly by publishers in the past.  Upshot: wanna read right now!

True Sisters, by Sandra Dallas, is next on the list.  The thing about this list, I just realized, is that it's going to be depressing because by definition, these are all books I've been really excited about for a while.  It's sad that I haven't read them already.  I raved about how psyched I was for this book back at the beginning of the year. Mormons, Sandra Dallas--how have I not read this yet?

And how is it possible that any good, self-respecting Neil Gaiman fan hasn't yet read American Gods? I know Mike says it's not his absolute favorite, but I just listened to Gaiman's reading of his story "Click-Clack the Rattlebag," and a) it was incredibly creepy, and b) I'm primed for some new Gaimain.  (That link, by the way, just takes you to a blog post about the story; it was available free on through Halloween but isn't there anymore.  I have no idea what happened to it.)  I've even read the sequel to American Gods, but not the book itself yet.

Slot four will be filled with something by Colette.  I read The Vagabond for book club ages ago, and I have to credit that as one of those discoveries that makes book club so worthwhile--I would never have read  it otherwise, and I'm SO glad I did.  (Other such discoveries, if I may digress, include Cloud Atlas and Revolutionary Road.)  I recently bought myself a bunch of used books by Colette, including Gigi and The Cat and The Complete Claudine, both of which are compendiums.  I think I'd probably start with Gigi, though, out of love for the musical and curiosity about how it differs.

This is just a start, but it's fun to speculate.  January?  Well, if I look at the pile I'm working on....January might be about right.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Late Night Thought Experiement

When I was in college--I love stories that start this way, because they're all about being young and stupid and doing weird things late at night.  We had a squirt gun, a laser pointer, a bullhorn, and a window overlooking the quad, and we were unstoppable.

This is a digression; sorry.  I was into thought experiments--what would be the practical problems with a superintelligent squirrel enrolling at the college?  How would I get out of the library if ninjas came in through the front and back doors?  What exact steps would I take if I woke up tomorrow morning and I was inside the body of the girl who lived up the hall?

(Back to the digression; I don't think my college friends know I thought about these things.  I was much more embarrassed back then at how dorky I am.)

That last one is pretty much the premise of David Levithan's Every Day. The narrator wakes up in a different body every day and lives one day in that life.  S/he can access that person's memories as needed--sister's named Jill, math quiz today, allergic to nuts, my turn to make dinner--but the thoughts and feelings are his/her own.  It's always been like this; it's weird, but s/he's used to it.

And then one day--the day the book starts--s/he meets Rhiannon.  She's the girlfriend of Justin, the body our narrator is wearing today.  We can tell Justin's kind of a jerk--not evil, just not great.  But the narrator and Rhiannon have a perfect day together, and suddenly, the drifting tolerance he (let's settle on "he" for now) has for his lifestyle doesn't cut it anymore.  Suddenly, instead of trying to blend in with the lives of his daily hosts, he's going out of his way to see Rhiannon, to find her, and to try to form some sort of lasting human connection.

I'm a sucker for the nitty gritty details of how a weird situation gets handled, and this book is great for that.  I loved the glimpses into the dozens of lives he lives--recovering from hangovers, hanging out with friends, going to a funeral, making it through the school day.  There's a lot of thought about the ethics of each situation--there's nothing he can do to stop this from happening, so he does his best to be a good caretaker of each body.  He sees a lot of the human condition, up close and personal.

But there's so much missing, too.  Any kind of consistency, any kind of physical possessions.  Never in his life has this person had any of these things, and he misses them, as far as it goes. But there are also places where you see the holes in his missing them--there's a great tension in the story between this character's lack of a body and the freedom, the objectivity it gives him, and the presence, the ownership of himself that he misses, that he doesn't even realize is there.

There are so many really interesting ideas in this book--ideas about gender, ideas about ownership, ideas about humanity, ideas about the importance of love--and they're folded in up in such an interesting premise and such a well-told story--I really loved reading it.  I kind of wish I'd been reading it for book club (and not only--sorry, clubbers--because I'm not loving this month's pick).  It would be such a good source of conversation.  Now I kind of want to do a list of discussion questions.  Would that be too dorky?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

And That's Not All!

I just reread and realized that I missed the most irritating point I wanted to make in my previous review.  There's a whole other level to Lifespan of a Fact that I forgot to complain about--can you believe it?

Okay, so it's an argument in the form of emails, structured around the fact checking of an essay.  And both sides of the argument--the author's claims that art demands these changes to reality and the checker's claims that the reality of what happened matters--are kind of aggressive and alienating.  But here's the big question: what do you make of the factuality of the book itself?

Here's an article with a summary of this angle of the situation: to what extent is this book an accurate--a "true"--representation of that conversation?  Because it turns out that most of the emails were written during the process of writing the book, not fact checking the article.  The "seven years" of correspondence that is represented here is not exactly what it appears to claim to be.

On one level, that is in no way unexpected.  I mean, on what level do you expect that an unedited email correspondence would be in any way publishable?  Besides which, I don't suppose that the facts were actually checked out in the linear, chronological fashion in which the book unfolds--that is, the confused outrage expressed at the beginning of the article is backed up by a research trip to Vegas.  It's pretty clear that the correspondence couldn't really have looked anything like this, with the checker sending notes to the editor "at first" and then being told to talk directly to the author instead after he's already clearly put in a lot of the research time.

So here's the thing--by not advertising this editing, this creative license that's been taken, the book essentially stakes its claim on which side of the divide it stands behind.  Is graceful art more important than fact?  Is it important that the examples given in an argument be "true?" 

I have opinions, but I'm not up to expounding on them.  But I do think that when you prove a point with a lie, you weaken the point, even if the lie is convincing AND the point is correct. 

Thursday, November 08, 2012

What Is A Fact?

You know when you get a good idea for a blog post, but it's going to require you to do some real thinking, and maybe background reading, before you can post it?  And that just seems like so much work when you've got this nasty chest cold coming on and can barely stay awake past 8:30?

You don't?

Well, then you probably don't know how it feels to finally suck it up to do the background reading and then realize that this guy wrote the article that's the blog post you were going to write.  This guy and probably everyone else in the world, but this was the article that took the stance most like your own.

It's not like I've even gotten very far into The Lifespan of a Fact, by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal.  In and of itself, the book is driving me crazy, because I am one of those people who didn't read A Million Little Pieces but was really pissed that James Frey turned out to have been lying about it being a memoir.  John D'Agata wrote an essay, and Jim Fingal was set the task of fact checking it, and this book consists of (a version of) the essay annotated with the fact check and portions of email correspondence between the fact checker and the author.

Now, let's stop here for a second.  The author comes across as a complete ass--about how little any of the facts he made up matter (in terms of whether they're true or not) but how MUCH they matter (in terms of creating a visceral sense of meaning and reality for the reader).  He's not only defensive, he's impatient and insulting--not even really defending his practice so much as scorning anyone who could dare question him.  I'm not even finding it as thoughtful a discussion of the meaning of fact in nonfiction as I'd like.

And then you have Fingal, the hero of the piece, defending us readers from lies lies lies.  Only--sometimes he comes across as a bit of a prig.  I mean, I agree that the facts are important, and some of the exaggerations feel like a betrayal (when you find meaning in the fact that three events occur on the same day, but it turns out they didn't, what does that say about the meaning you're trying to draw?).  But the fact is, when someone is writing a magazine article, I might expect them to describe bricks as red that are, in a certain light, really more of a dark brown.  I do NOT feel betrayed by a referral to someone whose title is Vice President of Public Relations as "the hotel's public relations manager."  If your only argument for journalistic truth is this kind of authoritarianism, then I might have lean on the side of the anarchist instead of the fascist.

What I want, though, is a discussion of what that in-between place looks like.  I want someone to help me define why I care about the veracity of the story in an article like this, that don't apply directly me.  I want a discussion that will help me map what kind of details I care about and what kind I don't.  I want an author who doesn't refer to my wanting to be able to draw my own conclusions as wanting to be "spoon fed." 

This book makes me want all of these things, badly, but I'm pretty sure it won't provide them.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Bad Book! Bad!

I loved Princess Academy.  I was thrilled that there would be a sequel.  I hesitated when I saw the title--Princess Academy: Palace of Stone.  First Book: Second Book is not a winning combination.  It's the title styling of a prefab series. I read it anyway.

Its most redeeming characteristic is that it's a fast read--only took a couple of days.  Miri, our heroine from the first book, comes to the city to spend a year and attend the wedding of her friend the princess, as well as to attend the university.  It turns out there is unrest fomenting among the populace.  Miri to the rescue! There are so many things wrong with this, I barely know where to start. 

1) Why does this problem exist in the first place?  How can a man so supremely incompetent put his own clothes on in the morning, never mind be king?  When there is a mob outside the palace shouting about their starving children, it's one thing to say "screw them, I want my diamond-crusted handkerchiefs," but totally another to say "who's starving?  what are you talking about?"

2) What does he need all that money for, anyway?  There is no Sun King decadence going on here.  He's not doing any kinging!

3) Even if the king IS exactly this intellectually subpar, I will not believe that NO ONE AT ALL around him is any smarter.  None of his advisers; his son (Miri's friend!), none of the nobles have ever said, "Hey, you know what?  Starving peasants!"

4) (Or 3b, depending how you look at it) Why is Miri--lowly mountain girl--responsible for all this stuff?  I can see how she gets caught up as a figurehead and swept up in the movement in her naivete--that's quite believable.  But there's no way that she would actually have any say in events, never mind be able to undo them.  (I'm getting vaguer to avoid serious spoilers, but please don't worry about being spoiled and just skip the book.)

5) This one is worst, I think, because this is a kids' book, and so political reality is not as important as emotional reality.  So here's my least favorite thing about this book--Miri is a completely limp, passive, wet dishrag of a character.  She does NOTHING in this book.  She waits for things to happen, and hopes that people will tell her what to do, and paces around watching them go on.  When she suspects something's wrong--all kinds of somethings, at all kinds of stages in the book--she never goes to the people involved and asks questions, tries to persuade, or makes an effort to change things. She's a hand-wringing milksop.

6) At the end, when she does take action, it's because some heretofore unprecedented magical powers come into being.  There's a foundation of vaguely magical stuff set up in the first book and the beginning of the second, but it's got clear rules and limitations that cease to have any meaning when they're needed, deus-ex-machina-style, to lift Miri out of her passivity. 

I'm quite depressed by this book.  Really, the nonsense of the political situation is only vaguely irritating--it's not a YA book, it's a kids' book, really, so the oversimplified nice-but-out-of-touch king with bad advisers, the girl who's used by politicians, a nation that can be healed because almost everyone has good intentions.  That's something you take in stride when you read books outside your reading level.

But guys, the amount of time in this book spent waiting for rescue is just exhausting.  The hand wringing, the not talking to each other--it's somewhere between boring and insufferable.  Blah!