Take the nearest book next to you and answer the following questions:
Flower Children: A Novel by Maxine Swann
Is the book dedicated to anyone? If so, whom?
"For my mother and father and my siblings, Leda, Jake, and Kyle"
What is the first sentence?
"They're free to run anywhere they like whenever they like, so they do."
Turn to page 47. Please share the first sentence of the first full paragraph.
"We scoot through a city, stopping at stoplights."
Wow, that was pretty boring. Come to think of it, the meme I did back in 2005 was pretty boring, as well (and Karen was responsible for me doing that one, too. Hmmm...)
Flower Children is a pretty good book so far, though it's more of a novella than a novel. Actually, it's more like a bunch of related short stories than anything else. That would make sense, since the book started out as a short story (read part of it here) that was featured in the Best American Short Stories 1998 anthology.
Yesterday marked three years since my first blog post (yes, I did indeed misspell a word in my very first post - how was that for a harbinger of things to come?). In lieu of presents, this blogger would like to request amnesty for posts never written:
Posts about the books I've recently read:
- A Changed Man (so-so)
- Special Topics In Calamity Physics (pretty good)
- The Birthdays (not bad)
- Love Is a Mix Tape (very good)
- Mission to America (not as funny - or biting - as I thought it would be)
- October 1964 (excellent)
- Then We Came to the End (very funny)
- and some other books that I'm sure I'm forgetting.
Posts about movies I've recently (and not so recently) watched:
- When We Were Kings (excellent)
- Billy Bragg and Wilco: Man in the Sand (very good)
- Transamerica (just okay)
- Word Wars (awful)
- Neil Young: Heart of Gold (sublime)
- From Here to Eternity (Sinatra - good, Monty Cliff - not so much)
- High Noon (perfect)
- Chinatown (close to perfect)
- Wordplay (very - four letter word for high quality? - g-o-o-d)
- Little Miss Sunshine (cute)
- A Slipping Down Life (disappointing)
- The Clash:Westway to the World (great)
- On the Waterfront (Brando's best)
- North by Northwest (good, but goofy)
- and some other films that I'm sure I'm forgetting.
I also never posted about:
- getting FiOS
- getting a DVR
- getting poison ivy for the first time
- that "eight facts" meme that two people tagged me to do
- coaching the five-year-old's soccer team this fall (more to come on that, I'm sure)
- the 25th anniversary of my first concert (06.19.82)
- and a whole lot of other stuff I'm sure I'm forgetting.
Now that that's all off my chest, onward to the next three years.
[It has come to my attention (and I'm sure yours as well) that the last time I posted about books was way back in August. I've read quite a few since then and I'd like to catch up on all of them
before the new year starts as soon as possible. So for the next few weeks I'll try to write a little something about each one. Please, hold your applause until the end.] [Chapter the First is here, Chapter the Second is here, and Chapter the Third is here, Chapter the Fourth is here.]
Two more novels, one envisioning a strange new America, the other a strange old America:
There Will Never Be Another You - Carolyn See We're never told what happened between 2001 and the 2007 this book is set in, but it must have been something slightly different than what happened in the real world. The 2007 America in Another You seems to have fully given into its post-nine-eleven fears and made them part of its daily life. A little more security, a little less trust, and a growing number of not-quite-right events - but people have adapted and life keeps rolling along.
Other than the super-secret paramilitary-ish program that one of the novel's characters gets sucked into, the overlapping stories of this book are all just concerned with folks living their lives - a failing marriage, an aging widow, a troubled teen, young lovers. See's novel benefits from the low-level anxiety present in it's slightly skewed setting, and it's a beautifully written book, but in the end I found it a character-driven novel full of characters I never really cared too much about. Well-written and clever, but not very memorable.
The Plot Against America - Phillip Roth Roth's book, on the other hand, is also well-written and clever, but this one is very memorable. Plot takes place in the early 1940's, in a world where the charismatic (and Nazi-friendly) Charles Lindbergh become president. This obvious isn't very good news for Jewish-Americans. Roth uses his real-life North Jersey upbringing as the backdrop for showing the surreal effects of the Lindbergh presidency on one Jewish neighborhood.
This was the first time I read a novel by Roth, mainly because I've always been a bit scared to tackle some of the subjects of his previous books. Roth is a GREAT WRITER and his books deal with BIG ISSUES so I wasn't very confident that a schlub like me could handle them. If Plot is any indication, I needn't have worried - Roth's novel is very accessible and is written on an extremely personal scale. You go through this nightmare right along with young Phillip's family. You get your news the same way they do - by listening to sympathetic newsmen, by dissecting presidential speeches, and by noticing how, family by family, your block is being torn apart. You feel for Roth's fictional family, you fear for their future and you keep reading to make sure they end up alright. An excellent story of how actions at the national level affects life in even the smallest of neighborhoods.
[It has come to my attention (and I'm sure yours as well) that the last time I posted about books was way back in August. I've read quite a few since then and I'd like to catch up on all of them before the new year starts. So for the next few weeks I'll try to write a little something about each one. Please, hold your applause until the end.] [Chapter the First is here, Chapter the Second is here, and Chapter the Third is here.]
NNNNN - Carl Reiner Like many of my sedentary compatriots, my after-school hours growing up were spent sitting in front of decade old sitcom reruns. McHale's Navy was big and Hogan's Heroes - which was not about a concentration camp - was must-see. But few if any of my friends stuck around for the Dick Van Dyke Show. In addition to somehow being immune to the affects of a certain Capri pant-wearer, my friends obviously lacked the sophistication needed to appreciate the talents of show creator and head writer Carl Reiner. But I didn't - by third grade I had Reiner pegged as a comic genius. His later work directing some of Steve Martin's best movies only added to my admiration.
I tell you all of this to give you an idea of what I expected when I saw Reiner's latest novel in the library, and to let you know just how much I hate saying that the book was a thorough disappointment.
Reiner spends way too much of NNNNN inside his oddball protagonist’s mind, and it's not a particularly funny or interesting place to be. Where most of the Dick Van Dyke Show's sharpest humor came when Rob Petrie bounced jokes off his fellow comedy-writers (neither of whom, thankfully, ever wore Capri pants), NNNNN's novelist (who is working on his fifth n-n-n-n-novel, get it?) spends most of his time talking to himself, so much so that he decides to seek professional help for a possible case of schizophrenia, which in turn leads to his looking for a possible real-life twin.
The dialogue between our novelist's personalities ranges from dull to repetitive. In fact, the whole story is dull and repetitive. Bits that weren't funny the first time show up again and again. Conversation, like the storyline, is stilted, slow, unrealistic, and just plain boring. About the only good thing I can say about the book is that it was, mercifully, pretty short.
If after reading this you still buy the novel, I would suggest you shelve it lying flat so that the title on spine appears as the much more appropriate "ZZZZZ."
Assassination Vacation - Sarah Vowell As this week has surely shown, Americans have an odd fascination with dead presidents (not these dead presidents, real-live dead presidents) I mean, c'mon, five days of mourning for Gerald Ford?
And if the president was unlucky enough to have been assassinated, hoo-boy, look out.
Vowell, a frequent commentator on NPR's This American Life, focuses on three gunned-down Chief Executives - Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. She drags relatives and friends (well, technically, she convinces them to take her) to visit every single historic marker, childhood home, and pretty much any other piece of minutia associated with these fallen leaders.
No matter how trivial the artifact, Vowell never uses them (or the mini-industry around them, or the sincere caretakers who maintain them) as comic fodder. Vowell is genuinely respectful of these sites and uses them only to trigger [no pun intended] some interesting and off-beat presidential stories. She's enthusiastic about American history - one of those people who actually like when a tour guide goes into a long story. Someone who, when asked after a tour if there are any questions, has questions.
It's hard not to be pulled into that kind of enthusiasm, especially when it's surrounded by funny stories from her life and the life of the presidents, or little known facts about places (like DC, NYC and even Buffalo) and history's supporting actors (especially Robert Todd Lincoln, who was unfortunate enough to have close connections to each of the three presidents). Vowell shows that our history is accessible to everyone, you just have to be willing to look for it.
[It has come to my attention (and I'm sure yours as well) that the last time I posted about books was way back in August. I've read quite a few since then and I'd like to catch up on all of them before the new year starts. So for the next few weeks I'll try to write a little something about each one. Please, hold your applause until the end.] [Chapter the First is here and Chapter the Second is here.]
To help reach my goal of reading each and every one of Anne Tyler's books (and there's a ton of them) I've been making every second or third book I borrow from the library one of her novels. Since the summer I've been able to knock three more books off that big list, and I have a fourth one out right now that's just waiting to be read.
A Patchwork Planet - Anne Tyler As sure as they're going to based in Baltimore, Tyler's novels are also going to concern one's place in (and obligation to) their family. Planet deals not only with a college dropout's relationship with his upwardly mobile family, but his work family - the elderly Baltimoreans he does odd jobs for - as well.
The backbone of the novel is trust - mainly, whether all the work that goes into building trust is worth it. That's kind of serious sounding, but the story is actually pretty light. Maybe a little too light. The lack of a more substantial story prevented this from being a great book, but Tyler's realistic dialogue (from both young and elderly characters) and offbeat sense of humor make it worth reading.
Ladder of Years - Anne Tyler Ladder of Years tackles a weightier topic - an unappreciated wife/mother who, in an attempt to start her life over again free of her daily obligations, suddenly walks out on her family. Tyler writes it as a kind of fairy tale (an old wife's tale, maybe?), happening in a world where a missing person can start a new life undiscovered without leaving her home state or even changing her name.
Even if you can suspend your disbelief of that setup it's hard to really care about the protagonist, who seems to have selfishly traded one predictable life for the comfort of a different, but just as predictable, life. Tyler keeps the story moving along at a good pace, so I never felt like I wanted to give up on the book, but I can't say it was a very satisfying read. A so-so novel from a great novelist, Ladder is my least enjoyable of Tyler's books so far.
Digging To America - Anne Tyler Tyler's latest novel, this year's Digging To America (like 2004's The Amateur Marriage), is noticeably different from her earlier work. This change in tone (to a much more serious one) and scope (still centered on families, but taking on society's larger issues) may reflect a post nine-eleven worldview or perhaps is just a natural maturation of Tyler's writing style. Whatever the reason, the change allows readers to better appreciate Tyler despite (or more likely, due to) not knowing what to expect style-wise.
Unlike Tyler's usual exploration of her character's role in their family, Digging uses the adoption of two Asian babies by two dissimilar families to explore one's place in their family and their country (both their native and adopted). The two families become friends but raise their children quite differently, all the while keeping an eye on how their child's development compares to the other's. Tyler also spends quite a bit of time on the grandparents to show how a parent's upbringing affects their own childraising methods.
Even though issues are taken more seriously and more directly here than in past Tyler books, it's just as well written as her previous novels. You might think more and laugh less, but Tyler's writing is just as strong and enjoyable in Digging as it is in the best of her earlier works.
[It has come to my attention (and I'm sure yours as well) that the last time I posted about books was way back in August. I've read quite a few since then and I'd like to catch up on all of them before the new year starts. So for the next few weeks I'll try to write a little something about each one. Please, hold your applause until the end.] [Chapter the First is here.]
In this episode, The Long Cut ventures into the non-fiction aisle:
The Old Ball Game: How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball - Frank Deford When you hear Deford's commentary on NPR's Morning Edition (or see it on HBO's Real Sports), his love of sports - especially the history of sports - is evident in his grandfatherly voice. He clearly knows his sports (he's been a Sports Illustrated writer since the Sixties), but what really makes Deford's stand out from all the other sports opinionists is his storytelling ability. While he doesn't ignore player stats and team records, Deford realizes that in the end his readers don't want a history book, they just want a good story. And that's what Deford gives them in The Old Ball Game.
Game documents the rarely-mentioned pre-Ruthian era of baseball, before it became the Great American Past-time (and way before it stopped being the nation's favorite past-time). Although the two men at the center of the book are shown to be early innovators of the sport (one in the dugout, the other on the pitcher's mound), Deford keeps their stories on a personal level. You read about their accomplishments, but you also read about their lives off the field, their tight relationship with each other, and how they were treated by (and they treated) other players. The fact that their dedication to improving their team's chances resulted in professional baseball that actually looked professional and drew public attention (and respect) to their young sport, well, that just makes the story Deford's telling even more satisfying. A quick and fun read.
The Children's Blizzard David Laskin Laskin uses a deadly ninetieth-century storm that took the Great Plains by surprise to tell the story of homestead life and the weather forecasting methods of the era, and how neither of them were very successful.
It seems clear that Laskin had more access to the history of early meteorology (at that time, it was done by the US Army) than he did to the history of poor immigrant homesteaders. Laskin sets up some personal stories early and briefly updates them throughout the book, filling in the sizable gaps with scientific details on weather patterns and their highs and lows (until your eyes glaze over) and the gory details on how the body reacts to extreme cold. He also spend quite a bit of time on the bureaucratic missteps that occurred in setting up and running the pioneer weather stations.
While Laskin seems to want badly to bring this scientific event down to a personal level, the families stories are never compelling enough to truly care about its victims nor varied enough to follow them from start to finish. So much of the book is centered around so few stories that it's easy to come away thinking that there were only a handful of victims, instead of the hundreds there actually were. This lack of pioneer family history might not be all Laskin's fault, but it does prevent him from delivering the affecting story the book shoots for.
[It has come to my attention (and I'm sure yours as well) that the last time I posted about books was way back in August. I've read quite a few since then and I'd like to catch up on all of them before the new year starts. So for the next few weeks I'll try to write a little something about each one. Please, hold your applause until the end.]
I'll start with a couple of the weirder ones I've picked up:
Never Mind the Pollacks: A Rock and Roll Novel - Neal Pollack As I've been getting more and more into not just reading books, but also reading about books (on fine blogs like Bookslut and 50 Books), I've noticed that there are a few names that are often used as examples of both what is right and what is wrong with writers today - "you either love 'em or hate 'em" kind of authors. Neil Pollack's name seemed to come up more than most, so when I saw Never Mind at a used book sale for $4, I picked it up. After reading it I can see how it would be hard to have something other than complete love or all-out hate for its author.
Never Mind, The Gump-like story of a pompous, know-it-all rock critic (is there any other kind?) weaving his through most of Rock and Roll's seminal moments, is a book that is completely off-the-wall, only understandable to those who grew up reading Rolling Stone (back when it was still cool to read RS), sometimes extremely gross, and often times nonsensical. It's also hilarious. Laugh-out-loud-page-after-page hilarious. Pollack's knowledge of the subject matter and his boldness in insulting his target audience - music snobs (of which he's obviously one) - and most importantly the fact that the book is hilarious (did I mention that already?) puts him firmly in my "what's right with writers today" column.
Home Land - Sam Lipsyte After having read Never Mind the Pollacks, it was hard not to compare Lipsyte's slightly surreal and completely off-kilter story with Pollack's work. Home Land is the story of a slacker twenty-something trying to explain to his former classmates how his life got so screwed up since they last saw him during high school. He does this through a series of (never-to-be published) updates to his former school's alumni newsletter. Where saner people with more normal lives might announce the birth of their first child, he chooses to mention how he scores pot off his friend's Narcotics Anonymous sponsor.
Lipsyte is at times just as funny as Pollack, but Home Land seems to run out of steam just as his protagonist finally gets to confront his former classmates, at their five-year reunion. For those last few pages his story takes on a completely different (and severely less funny) tone from the one that carried the book up to that point. Still a pretty good read, despite the disappointing ending.
Catching up on some books I've read this summer. There were two about writing (not that I needed any help):
Bird by Bird: Lessons on Writing and Life Anne Lamott As the subtitle says, Bird by Bird is about writing and life, but readers familiar with Anne Lamott's other "instructional" books - on child-raising (Operating Instructions) and faith (Traveling Mercies, Plan B) - know Bird is going to be a lot about life and just a little about writing.
Lamott, who has become more popular for her non-fiction than her novels, offers would-be novelists thoughts on finding their voices and glimpses at just how unglamorous a writer's life can be. You could easily miss the book's writing lessons, which are surrounded by very personal ( and very entertaining) stories from Lamott's unconventional life, but the writing advice is in there. From those stories, Lamott's readers should find her basic messages (or at least what I saw them to be): Write what you know (or investigate what you're writing about), trust your characters (and keep their actions believable), and don't write using fame or money as your primary inspiration.
If aspiring novelists come away from this book without extracting those points from Lamott's stories, they were probably never going to be good storytellers anyway.
The Dimwit's Dictionary: 5,000 Overused Words and Phrases and Alternatives to Them Robert Hartwell Fiske and Joseph Epstein Hey, I know, let's all become the pompous vocabulary police and take all the personality out of our writing! Tedious to read and filled with unimaginative alternatives to what the authors believe are overused phrases (but are pretty much every phrase you've ever heard - hackneyed or not), this book is helpful only if you want to write like this (taken from a passage where one of the authors defends his use of acerbic commentary in the book):
This pedagogy may strike some as unworkable, and perhaps its efficacy is suspect, but we surely know that other methods of tutelage are largely unsuccessful.
Sheesh! Look, I understand that clichés are overused, but suggesting I replace "raining cats and dogs" with "raining" doesn't improve the writing, it just makes it more boring. I needed this book
like a hole in the head not at all (another inspired alternative).
They're right in my house!
But it didn't look good there for a while. I had put a hold on both of the books (plus a couple novels) and while they were in transit to my local branch, my local branch was forced to close due to construction next-door.
Here's where being a nice guy and writing a letter to the library's volunteer organization about how great the workers at your local branch are (and they are, at least at my branch). What happens is that a lot of the librarians remember you (since your letter was read at a staff meeting), and even two years after the letter they're still willing to do a favor or two for you.
A phone call, a knock on the library door, a big "thank you," and I've got my travel guides.
Now if I could only get those novels, too.
It's been a while since I last posted about the books I'm reading. I'm not finishing books at my usual rate, but I've gotten through a few - a couple of them non-fiction, a couple of them non-non-fiction.
First the non-fiction:
The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion Just days after Didion and her husband, both novelists, began to cope with their daughter's sudden coma (brought on by a mysterious illness), Didion's husband died of a heart attack. Didion documents the first year without her husband (the "magical thinking" being the illogical belief that he might come back) and the struggles with her daughter's illness and recovery. It sounds like a bummer, but Didion isn't writing a tear-jerker or a self-help book, she's pretty much writing a journal of honest thoughts and family stories and letting you see them. Often sad but never depressing, and the writing is outstanding.
Misquoting Jesus Bart E. Ehrman Subtitled "The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why," Ehrman explains how passing down the Bible stories gave scribes plenty of chances to change the text, accidentally and not so accidentally. He documents how experts try to figure out what versions are closest to the original scriptures and gives plenty of examples of - and reasons for - the changes. Textual Criticism sounds like a pretty dry subject but Ehrman does a fair job of making it interesting, although he does slip into textbook mode by starting each chapter with a recap of what we learned in the previous chapter. Even so, the book was worthy enough to put up with people asking me, "so, is that one of them there Da Vinci Code books?"
And the fiction:
Blue Angel Francine Prose Prose has received a lot of good press for her latest novel, A Changed Man, but, of course, my library branch didn't have that book in stock. I didn't want to have to wait for it to be ordered, so I picked up the book before that one, Blue Angel. It's the story of a creative-writing professor in a small-town college who tries to walk the fine line between loving a student's work and loving the student. It's meant to be a satire of the overly sensitive sexual harassment policies in academia, but the protagonist is so screwed up it's hard to feel sorry for the guy, let alone laugh at his plight. The characters never seem real, hardly any them are sympathetic, and the novel ends with an unsatisfying, unclear, and unnecessary twist.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone J.K. Rowling After months of promising the eight-year-old that I would read it, I finally gave in. I went into this fully expecting to hate it - it's been my experience that books selling in the hundreds of millions are often written only to satisfy the lowest common denominator. Plus, I saw the Potter books as kids book, no matter how many adults read them. Well, after reading the first of the series, I still think it's a kids book - but a very well-written kids book. Rowling so vividly creates a fantasy world that it somehow never seems implausible, while at the same time nailing the real-world social interactions of pre-teens. The result is a perfect combination of mystery and humor (though there's a lot of set-up before you get to most of that mystery and humor). I don't see myself reading the second Potter book any time soon - I'm more of a Superfudge kind of guy - but I can now see why so many people are into the series, and I feel a lot better about my son reading it. My faith in the best-sellers list has been restored, at least until the next Dan Brown novel comes out.
Next up for me is Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. Lamott rarely disappoints.
I've never read one of Joyce Carol Oates books, and I don't know much about her other than that she writes a ton of books each year. She writes so much that, in addition to writing under her own name, she's recently written three books under the pseudonym "Lauren Kelly." The latest of these novels is Blood Mask.
Now, I don't have any problem with authors using pseudonyms, or even writing books under multiple names. Whatever floats your boat. But if you are going to write under a different name, than you should sell the book using only that name.
You can't have it both ways - if you want to create a distinct personality to allow yourself to write from an alternate perspective (which is Oates reasoning, from what I read in today's Philadelphia Inquirer review), than you should let the book live or die under that name. If you're going to write from a different perspective, then you should allow readers to also approach the book from a different perspective. That's not going to happen if they know who really wrote the novel. But of course, without your real name on the cover the book might not sell your usual trillion copies, and that would really suck for you.
Am I right here? Is this making any sense?
This is almost as bad that dopey Splinter Cell series that has Tom Clancy's name in three inch type on the cover, but is actually only "created" by him, and are in reality written by someone else. Wha?
I tell ya, dem dare literary folk sure are funny sumtimes.
So you can just imagine how cool it was for me to see that Tyler has a new novel, Digging To America, coming out this month. I'm not sure how many men out there would be comfortable enough with their sexuality to admit getting excited by a 66-year-old woman best known for writing beautiful novels about the obligations of family, but as you can see by all those "heres" up above, it's too late for me to turn back now.
As a bonus, Bookslut almost accidentally mentions that failbetter.com currently has an interview with the usually-reclusive Tyler up on their website. Mostly she talks about the new novel, but also includes some interesting things about Tyler - like when she calls Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant her favorite novel of hers (personally I don't know which novel I would pick, but it wouldn't be Homesick).
It's not very long, so go give it read. And expect a post about the book from me in about month or two.
Update: Apparently Tyler isn't as reclusive as usual these days. A USA Today interview is here, and it includes reading recommendations from Tyler. I think more author interviews should include recommendations from them. [Via Bookslut and Karen, who scooped me on my own blog!]
Anne Tyler has officially become my sure-fire go-to novelist. If I go into the library and don’t find anything interesting on the “New Arrivals” wall, I know I can’t go wrong picking up one of Tyler’s novels. Lucky for me my branch has plenty of her books.
That’s not to say that Tyler’s writing is predictable. Yeah, most likely the book is going to center on an introspective member of a Baltimore family, but from there her books have all gone in different directions. The direction that 2001’s Back When We Were Grownups takes is asking, “What if?”
Rebecca Davitch is a fifty-something “professional party-thrower” whose life has become bogged down with the problems of grown children and stepchildren, grandchildren and step-grandchildren (maybe even a step-step-grandchild?), and an aging brother- and uncle-in-law. All the while having to keep up the cheery persona expected of someone who throws parties for a living.
But what if Rebecca hadn’t dropped her boring-but-steady college beau from the good side of town for the older and more blue-collar Joe and his three daughters from his first marriage? Back then Joe’s extended family - and the catering service they ran out of their townhouse - seemed like the more interesting future. Shortly after having their first kid together, though, Joe is killed in a car accident and forces Rebecca to take on a family, a business, and an outgoing personality that she’s now not sure ever really fit her. What if she was never meant for this life? What if she could go back and pick the other guy?
This isn’t some complicated alternate-universe Sliding Doors/Star Trek sci-fi thing. In fact the story isn’t very complicated at all. Tyler gently and quietly waltzes through this tale of regret and possible reinvention. Life - and its joys, demands, and traditions - continues as usual, so Rebecca’s looking back happens as it would in real life – mainly when she has time for it.
Tyler’s family storytelling is so good that the fact that so many pages are spent on daily events doesn’t hurt the novel. The woman who won the Pulitzer for Breathing Lessons - which took place entirely during a weekend car ride - doesn’t need to beat you over the head with the plot, instead preferring to let it seep into the everyday.
That said, this was probably the Tyler novel I least enjoyed (and all that means is that it would only get four stars from me instead of a full five). The story introduces so many peculiar family members that it sometimes is hard to remember what peculiarities goes with which child. And while I don’t think a good novel has to tie up every little loose end, this book, more than any other of Tyler’s I’ve read, seems to end a few pages short.
These are minor complaints, though. Nothing that would stop me from picking up yet another Tyler book the next time I’m in need of a sure-fire winner of a novel.
Once our tax return came in, the missus and I treated ourselves to a few extras from Amazon (along with a super-cool new coffee maker). She got herself a couple cds and I got me a couple books I've been wanting for a while:
I also got The Dimwit's Dictionary : 5,000 Overused Words and Phrases and Alternatives to Them, so my blog writing should be noticeably gooder from here on out.
Two for the reference section. Yea!
In the kitchen, "instant" is rarely better than "slow-cooked." What would you rather have - Folgers crystals or fresh brewed? Cut-and-bake cookie dough or dough made from scratch? Microwave or stove-top oatmeal?
Novels, on the other hand, can sometimes benefit from a little Hamburger Helper-like assistance. Especially those that deal with family dynamics. Why spend 200 pages setting up why mom - and dad, and son, and daughter - act the way they do? You can communicate the same information much more quickly by manufacturing a conflict and revealing character traits simply by showing how each family member reacts to the unexpected event. The trick is to make sure the conflict doesn't overtake the rest of the story.
In The Accidental, Ali Smith introduces a mysterious visitor, Amber, to quick-bake her character development. This vagabond easily enters the vacation home of the dysfunctional Smart family because each member has a mistaken idea of who she is. They all think she is someone else's guest.
Amber ends up being a different person to each of the Smarts. Her interactions with the skirt-chasing father, the insecure mother, the depressed teen son, and the angst-filled pre-teen daughter are all told from that family member's perspective - and each of those perspectives paint a wildly different picture of Amber. While trying to figure out this stranger, they start figuring out more about themselves. Even after Amber has left, the family's story stays interesting.
The problem with this "instant" character is that, while she does a good job making you interested in the family, her own story isn't strong enough to make you care about her. Thankfully, not a lot of the book is told from her point-of-view (thought the parts that are, are written in such an artsy abstract way that makes you care even less about her). Smith successfully avoids allowing her novel's added conflict to take over the story, but in doing so she fails to give this character any story at all.
That's the only place I saw Smith's storytelling falter, and in the end it's her strong writing that overcomes the weakness of the novel's (supposed) central character. Once you see that Amber's just an additive to make the plot rise a little faster, you start to appreciate that it's the family member's stories that are the real main ingredients of the book.
British singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding is a master at cramming verbose stories into fun three-minute pop songs.British novelist Wesley Stace doesn't have the benefit of a bouncy beat, so it takes him 544 pages to tell his story in Misfortune. Even so, Stace's debut novel moves along quickly thanks to his engaging storytelling. This isn't surprising since John Wesley Harding is the musical alias of one Welsey Stace.
A little identity crisis? Maybe, but it's nothing compared to what Rose, the protagonist of Misfortune, suffers. Rescued from abandonment as a newborn and raised as a girl by an English lord who longs for a replacement for his long-deceased little sister, Rose understandably has some issues.
Rose grows up a happy girl in one of the richest household in England, only discovering the truth as he approaches adolescence. Rose decides to run away from both his home and the truth, before deciding to come home and face that truth, on his own terms.
Throughout this Victorian-era story, Stace weaves tales of greedy relatives plotting to overthrow the estate, the inter-workings of the mansion, and the balladeer that found the abandoned baby Rose. Of all these stories, Stace, perhaps slipping into his John Welsey Harding songwriter role, seems most interested in the ballets and he wisely uses them to move the book through it's third act.
Probably because of the English estate setting, Stace's storytelling reminded me a bit of Ian McEwan's in Atonement, though it wasn't quite as strong. Misfortune may have lacked Atonement's big surprise ending, but its finale was still gratifying - especially with a remarkably realistic appendix tacked on. And while I do think that Stace could have used a few less words in his debut, the story still seemed move along as quickly as a John Welsey Harding song.
[In an attempt to take some of the stress out of providing quality blog content through the holiday season, I have decided to end the year with several best-of posts, collected under the title "Making the Cut" (get it? - hey, coming up with clever post titles is the most stressful part of owning a blog).]
I only finished sixteen books this year (not bad, but not 52 either), so rather than just choose my five or ten favorites, I've decided to rank all sixteen - best to worst. Thankfully none of them were unreadable so even the ones towards the end of this list weren’t all that bad (although if On Bullshit wasn't so short I probably would have given up on that one).
To prove that I've actually read these books I've included a blurb from my original post about each because, you know... I worked hard on those things. Click the book title to get to the full post.
01. The Lake, the River and the Other Lake, Steve Amick
Each character has such a strong story that only takes the first few sentences of a new chapter to slip into a different storyline. Almost all of the characters are well-developed, making it easy to care about each of their stories - stories that often overlap, as you would expect in a small town.
02. The Position, Meg Wolitzer
With the unusual storyline, I expected the novel be full of either comedy or pathos, but Wolitzer finds a way to include a limited amount of both. She has a way of inserting day-to-day humor into her stories to keep them realistic, with little being played just for laughs. In the same way, she adds drama without turning everything into a melodrama. Wolitzer makes sure not to blame the parents' book completely for how the children turn out, which only adds depth to each of their stories.
03. The Memory of Running, Ron McLarty
Two things save this story from becoming goofy and saccharine: one is that the story switches back and forth between Smithy's dealing with his sister in the past and his long bike ride in the present. This allows the story to move between darker and lighter moments. The other is that the people Smithy meets along the way are ordinary people, not presidents and rock stars. While he seems to have an unusual number of bizarre run-ins, most of them don't seem too far-fetched.
04. The Amateur Marriage, Anne Tyler
It's the story of two people who probably should have never gotten married, and that's not very hopeful or humorous. So it's not a happy story, but that doesn't mean it's not an interesting one. Tyler spends most of the time inside these people's heads and does a fantastic job getting both side's thoughts. You never blame one spouse over the other because neither is completely bad or completely good, they're just wrong for each other. It's not an easy story to tell, but I think Tyler does a good job tackling a tough subject.
05. Skinny Dip, Carl Hiaasen
Hiaasen moves you so quickly through the book and throws in so many funny lines that you don't care that you know all along where the story is taking you, you're just happy to be along for the ride.
06. The Geographer's Library, Jon Fasman
The caduceus, the emblem of two snakes intertwined on a staff, shows up quite a bit in the novel, since it was apparently a symbol once used by alchemists. It also serves as a good representation of this book, since its strongest point is the way Fasman intertwines the two stories to both deepen and unravel his murder mystery.
07. You Think You Hear, Matt O'Keefe
O'Keefe nails the specifics of this lifestyle (ex-girlfriends, bongs, fighting over the co-pilot's seat), but it doesn't make for the most focused storyline. A little story here, back in the van. A little more story here, some talk of music. Back to the story, than a little riff between band members. It's like the tour van is going cross-country, but the plot is stuck circling in a cul-de-sac.
08. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, Gordon S. Wood
Unfortunately, as interesting as these new (to me) facts were, I found the book very hard to get through. I don't read many history books, but I did enjoy reading Joseph Ellis' Founding Brothers a couple years ago. I was expecting this book to hold my interest like Ellis' book did, but Wood's writing was so dry it took me forever to get through. It's a shame, because the book covers interesting aspects of Franklin's life, but it really reads like a high school history book.
09. The Pleasure Of My Company, Steve Martin
I wanted to like it, but in the end it turned out to be a slight book (its really more of a novella) with a slight plot that kind of just moved along without ever going anywhere. Martin's greatest talent is his sly humor, but there is very little of that evident here.
10. Say Goodbye: The Laurie Moss Story, Lewis Shiner
Like You Think You Hear, Say Goodbye chronicles the cross-country tour of an up-and-coming music act. Both books offer believable enough takes on the trials and tribulations of life on the road, but both also fail to develop the characters enough for the reader to care about them much while reading the book or remember them much after finishing it.
11. Fluke: Or, I Know Why The Winged Whale Sings, Christopher Moore
Somewhere around the middle the book, the story takes a unforeseen turn into science fiction that prevents the second half from being anywhere near as good as the first. The story moves back and forth between the real world and the fantasy world, but their isn't much humor in the fantasy world and the attempts at humor in the real world are hampered by the absence of the protagonist (who's stuck in that un-real world).
12. The Best American Short Stories 2004, Lorrie Moore, Editor
Of the twenty stories in the anthology, I would say I liked about half of them. That makes it the most disappointing of these collections that I have read. I like reading stories from newly discovered authors, but the strongest stories this year came from seasoned storywriters – Alice Munro, Annie Proulx, and John Updike. Many of the other stories were instantly forgettable.
13. Small Town Odds, Jason Headley
Small Town Odds does have the same low-key slice-of-small-town-life feel of many of Richard Russo's books, like Nobody's Fool and Empire Falls. And just like Russo, Headley's book has only the slightest of plots to move it along. Russo, like Anne Tyler (another favorite of mine), can rely on his excellent writing to push the reader along even when the story moseys along. Headley's writing skills, however, haven't reached that point yet.
14. Joe College, Tom Perrotta
Since Danny [the protagonist] mostly played straight man to all these oddballs, his own story wasn't strong enough to move the story along. Add to that the fact that Danny (like most college students) often came off as so immature and self-centered that it was hard to like him and you've got a leading character who is tough to like enough to care about him and a supporting cast so large that you can't remember them enough to care about them. Not a good combination.
15. The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, Terry Ryan
Several times the same scene is described: the kids playing outside waiting for the mailman (loving nicknamed Pokey for his leisurely pace) to bring the latest prize announcement, just as the bank's threatening to foreclose (or just as the car breaks down, or just as one of the kids need new glasses, etc.). Wholesome is good, but after a while it gets kind of old. The book also seems to have been written at about an sixth-grade reading level, which certainly didn't add to my enjoyment.
16. On Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt
Frankfurt passes up the perfect opportunity to have a little fun with the subject, never veering from his dry and overly earnest look at an extremely silly word. Somewhat interesting, but ultimately not very enjoyable.
Wow, reading some of those blurbs, you would think I hated most of these books, but I actually enjoyed most of them. Really. Perhaps I was a little too rough on these authors?
While doing a little prep work for my end-of-year book post, I realized that I never wrote anything about Lewis Shiner’s novel Say Goodbye: The Laurie Moss Story, which I finished sometime in early November. I guess the fact that I didn’t feel an urgency to say anything about this book says a lot in itself.
Say Goodbye was one of two books I plucked from Bookslut’s “rock novels” article, the other being Matt O’Keefe’s You Think You Hear. Like You Think, Say Goodbye chronicles the cross-country tour of an up-and-coming music act. Both books offer believable enough takes on the trials and tribulations of life on the road, but both also fail to develop the characters enough for the reader to care about them much while reading the book or remember them much after finishing it.
Of the two books, I would say O’Keefe’s novel had the better writing and more interesting story. Where You Think had its band encounter different problems as it crosses America, the intra-band romantic conflict at the center of Shiner’s novel seemed to repeat over and over again without ever coming to a satisfactory resolution.
Say Goodbye also suffered from an awkward story-within-a-story dealing with Laurie Moss’s biographer and his own personal problems. I suppose that this was intended to act as the framework for the main story, but it was used so sporadically and so weakly that it acted more as a distraction.
So overall I can't really say I was happy with either of Bookslut's "rock novel" recommendations. I suppose it's because these books weren't about the music or (in the case of the excellent High Fidelity) the fans of music, but about the musicians.
Meanwhile, it's slow going with my current read, the 500+ page Misfortune, which was written, coincidentally, by a musician. It's not that its not an interesting book - it's just taken a backseat to lunchtime shopping excursions, nights of endless cookie baking, and other holiday interruptions. I'm trying my best to get through the novel by the end of the year, but I wouldn't bet on it.
I do so love my Free Library of Philadelphia card. I got it about two and a half years ago after finding out about their sweet, sweet deal - if you live, work, go to school, or pay taxes in the city, you're in. For free. How crazy is that? I think it's so crazy that I actual donate money each year to be a "Friend" of my local branch (local to my work, that is). I also donate because the people at that branch are very cool and because anytime there's a budget shortage (and when isn't there a budget shortage?), someone wants to cut library funding.
So, I have a free pass to a great library system that I have borrowed about 100 books (and plenty of CD's, too) from and what do I go and do to repay this wonderful institution? I forget to renew my current read and receive my very first fine. This was a common occurrence for me as a kid (I once sold my bike to pay a library tab), but I've prided myself on never being on the Philly Library's naughty list. The single simoleon I was assessed as punishment is nothing compared to the shame with which I must now live.
What can I say? Thanksgiving came and I complete forgot to renew Misfortune, which is a good book so far but is taking me forever to get through - it's not an easy read and I've been a little busy with the shopping and the decorating and the swearing and the cookie planning (still time to get your recipe in). Perhaps the holiday season wasn't the best time to read a 500-page novel about a 19th-century boy being brought up by his royal parents as a girl. Hmmm.
And the worst part? One less thing I get to be self-righteous about. Dang.
Very interesting. [Via Snooble]
About a month ago, Bookslut had an article about rock-n-roll novels. I, being one of those readers that saw nothing unusual or abnormal with the behavior of the self-absorbed music geeks in Nick Hornsby's High Fidelity, took the article with me to the library and searched through their card catalog (okay, it's really a computer catalog) for matches.
Of all the book's listed, Matt O'Keefe's debut novel, You Think You Hear, looked the most promising. It's the story of four friends - three of them the on the cusp of success as a college-rock trio. The fourth friend is our protagonist, Lou, who has agreed to act as their roadie as the band hits the road their first big tour (opening for an English band hoping to match their British success on this side of the pond).
I looked forward to a behind the scenes peek at a mid-level, still-traveling-in-a-van, make-or-break tour. I wasn't expecting Hornsby-level writing, especially in a debut novel, but I did expect that same music-wonk dialog that carried High Fidelity, and hopefully a good story.
What I got was great writing, but not much story. Although the characters are all out of college, their profession leaves them in a suspended college-life state-of-mind, otherwise known as the slacker mindset. O'Keefe nails the specifics of this lifestyle (ex-girlfriends, bongs, fighting over the co-pilot's seat), but it doesn't make for the most focused storyline. A little story here, back in the van. A little more story here, some talk of music. Back to the story, than a little riff between band members. It's like the tour van is going cross-country, but the plot is stuck circling in a cul-de-sac.
The music talk isn't very original or very interesting like it was in High Fidelity. Instead of High Fidelity's lovable (to me) music snob you've-never-heard-of-them-so-they-must-be-good obscure references, all of music talk here deals with either well-worn classic rock (the band actually recreates lines from Tom Petty's awful mass-market "Free Falling" by being sure to glide down over Mulholland Drive with the song on the tape deck) or with the fictional songs of the novel's fictional band, none of which seem like they could actually survive in the real world.
Like I said, the writing is strong. Strong enough to make you not give up on the book. O'Keefe avoids the freshman mistake of writing a screenplay instead of a novel. Dialogue is natural sounding and flows nicely through descriptions of people and places and through the thoughts of our intrepid roadie. The story may not be the strongest, but you never roll your eyes at it either.
So - good writing, a so-so but readable story, and characters that you like while you're reading but forget about while you're not. Not too bad, but from a book about a cross-country tour I ended up wishing that its story had gone somewhere too.
The new Best American Short Stories is here!
The new Best American Short Stories is here!
The new Best American Short Stories is here!
Man, I love when this thing comes out. Mad props to the missus for picking this up for me today.
Looks like a good one, too - yes, Alice Munro is in it (duh!), but so is Tom Perrotta (Election), Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) and Edward P. Jones (the Known World), and it's edited by Michael Chabon (the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay).
I still have to get through the novel I'm reading now, but I should be digging into the short stories by the weekend.
As a geographer, was it vain of me to select a novel simply because "geographer" was in the title, or was it just foolish? That's the question I ask myself now that I have completed Jon Fasman's The Geographer's Library. It turns out that, other than the fact that there is some globetrotting going on, the book really isn't about geography at all. (It's not about libraries either).
What the book is about is Paul Tomm, a fresh-out-of-college journalist working for a small town weekly newspaper in Connecticut. One of his many responsibilities is writing up obituaries, including one for a mysterious professor who's death is just as mysterious. The deeper Paul digs, the weirder the professor's story gets.
Between chapters, the novel follows the movement of fifteen objects relating to alchemy. These objects were stolen from the library of a king's geographer in the 12th century (while he was off mapping some far-away land) and have become dispersed throughout the world since then. It seems that lately someone has been trying to reunite the pieces, while leaving a trail of dead former owners in his wake (many of them unaware of the true value of the items they held). These little stories, which take place all over the world, start in the time of the geographer and run right up to present day.
The caduceus, the emblem of two snakes intertwined on a staff, shows up quite a bit in the novel, since it was apparently a symbol once used by alchemists. It also serves as a good representation of this book, since its strongest point is the way Fasman intertwines the two stories to both deepen and unravel his murder mystery.
But then a funny thing happens as the book progresses - the stories about the missing items, which start out hard to follow and nowhere near as engaging as the story of the inquisitive journalist, become much more interesting than the current day investigation. Just as the stories of how the alchemy pieces are recollected start getting more colorful, the main story starts to get bogged down in long, stilted conversations. In fact, when the solution to the mystery finally gets revealed, the novel, with all of its fascinating tales of worldwide adventure interspersed throughout, ends in a dull and drawn-out dialogue in Paul's apartment. I feels like 350 pages into what should have been a 500 page book some editor told the author that he had twenty more pages to wrap everything up.
Overall, I'd say it's about three-quarters of a good book. Up until that last quarter the writing is excellent and the stories are strong. The idea to wrap the two narratives together is very clever and works well. Despite the fact that the parts chronicling the movement of the objects of alchemy happen in some pretty far-flung locales, the writing in them never becomes far-fetched. If only the author had been able to work a little alchemy on his ending.
Bookslut ( I love saying that name... bookslut, bookslut, bookslut) has it's new issue online and in it is an article about "rock novels." The last rock novel I read was High Fidelity years and years ago, so I immediately started checking how many of the books on Bookslut's list were available to me through the Philly Free Library (I hate paying for books).
Bookslut makes all of these books sound pretty interesting, but only a few are stocked by the library - and none at my local branch. So I ended up requesting that two of them be put on hold for me: Say Goodbye: The Laurie Moss Story by Lewis Shiner and You Think You Hear by Matt O'Keefe. The first is about a Texas singer-songwriter trying to make it in Los Angeles and the second is about a guy roadie-ing for a bunch of his college friends as their band makes it biggest tour.
These books join Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit, about the history of the word "bullshit," on my library hold list. I'm reading this purely for educational reasons, and not just so I can say "bullshit" a lot. I know that's what you were thinking, but that's just bullshit - I take this literary enlightenment bullshit pretty seriously. (Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.)
Anyway, right now I'm reading Jon Fasman's The Geographer's Library. Being a geographer myself I thought this would be pretty interesting - and it is - but it's not what I would call a fast read. It goes back and forth between present day and about a thousand years ago, and the thousand-year-ago stuff is a little hard to get through. Still, I'm determined to get through it before I move on to my next book. Of course, that's bullshit (That is, the next book for me is On Bullshit. My determination to finish the book I'm reading now is not bullshit).
Certain books make it easy to imagine their movie pitch line, and the latest book I read is one of those books. When producers try to drum up studio interest in making the inevitable film adaptation of Ron McLarty's debut novel, The Memory of Running, it'll go something like this: "it's The Shipping News meets Forrest Gump." You take Shipping News' screwed-up simpleton Quoyle, running away from tragic events that shake him out of the rut his life has become, and you send him on a cross-country trek like that other simpleton, Gump. Now, for me this could be a problem. I was one of those party-poopers who didn't like Forrest Gump (the movie, I never read the book), but I loved The Shipping News (the book, the movie I thought suffered from a poor screenplay and even worse casting).
As the Memory of Running opens, the main character, an obese middle-aged loner stuck in a dead-end job, finds out that his parents have both died in a car accident. Shortly after their funeral, Smithy (must all these strange guys have equally strange names?) gets a letter informing him that his long-lost, and mentally-unstable, sister Bethany has been found dead on the streets of Los Angeles, a homeless victim of exposure identified only by the dental records her father had continued to send out decades after she ran away from home. Bethany grew up hearing a voice that told here to harm herself, and Smithy seemed to be the only person who understood her - and the only one who could get through to her.
Bethany liked to describe her little brother as a "runner," always on the move, mostly on his bike (confusing, I know, but stay with me here). After the middle-aged, overweight, and drunk Smithy finds out about his sister, he decides to ride his old Schwinn out to L.A. to retrieve her body. So you have the set-up for a dark Quoyle-like character taking Forrest's running-into-people cross-country trip.
Two things save this story from becoming goofy and saccharine like Forrest Gump: one is that the story switches back and forth between Smithy's dealing with his sister in the past and his long bike ride in the present. This allows the story to move between darker and lighter moments (yes, I know that Forrest Gump had its darker parts, but they couldn't make up for all the destracting special effects in the lighter parts). The other is that the people Smithy meets along the way are ordinary people, not Gump's presidents and rock stars. While he seems to have an unusual number of bizarre run-ins, most of them don't seem too far-fetched.
And while the subject matter may seem to be all about death and dying and bleakness, there are plenty of funny moments, both in the past and present stories. And, of course, there are some lessons learned and pounds shed and habits broken as Smithy rides on and on.
The writing is nowhere near as good as Annie Proulx's was in the Shipping News, and many of the parts dealing with a friendship back home (that seems to become more romantic the further he pedals away) border on being too cutesy, but McLarty redeems himself by keeping the story quick-moving, interesting, and down to earth.
Overall a very good book that, if those film studios don't screw it up, could make for a good movie.
I finished re-reading Empire Falls a couple weeks ago but I didn't post a review (the first time I read it was during my pre-blogstoric era) because, really, what else can I say about my favorite author, Richard Russo? Especially when the novel happened to win the Pulitzer Prize? When I pick up a book by Russo, I know I can expect a well-written small-town story.
Russo specializes in the off-kilter regulars down at the bar, the parents trying to raise the next generation right even though the town (and the world) has changed since they themselves were kids, and the few folks in power trying to hang on to whatever authority they can still squeeze out of their tiny borough. Russo does this all without turning his characters into "characters." It's not hard to imagine the things he writes about actually happening in a typical small-town day. He gets laughs out of his stories without putting anyone down, finding humor in the everyday absurdities instead of the kooky neighbors.
In his debut novel, Steve Amick seems to follow the Russo recipe for success. The Lake, the River and the Other Lake, which I just finished reading, takes place in a small Michigan harbor town that is quickly becoming a favorite location for the rich to build their summer homes. Since several types - Native Americans whose ancestors first settled the area, townies, rich interlopers, weekend tourists, and even migrant workers up for cherry picking season - occupy the town, Amick has to juggle a lot of stories. To his credit, he hardly ever drops a ball. Each character has such a strong story that only takes the first few sentences of a new chapter to slip into a different storyline. Almost all of the characters are well-developed, making it easy to care about each of their stories - stories that often overlap, as you would expect in a small town.
The only complaint I have about the book is that Amick doesn't always see his stories through to the end. I'm not someone who feels that every storyline has to be neatly wrapped up by the end of a book, but a few of them in the Lake seem to just trail off into the ether. Amick even starts a couple sub-plots that never develop past their introduction, as if they are either the victims of poor editing or the seeds of a future series of books (or a TV show?).
That, however, is the book's only glitch, and a relatively small one considering the large cast of characters. The stories are so good, the people so believable, and the writing so comfortable that I'm willing to overlook some weakly-resolved conclusions, especially if Amick does end up continuing this story.
Once again I went to my branch of the Philadelphia Library only to find that the book I wanted, the book that the library's website assured me was on the shelf, was not to be found. Last time it was Tom Perrotta's Little Children that was missing, this time it was Christopher Moore's Lamb: The Gospel According To Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal (who could resist a book with a subtitle like that?). And just like last time, I settled for leaving with a different novel from the author. That's how I ended up reading Perrotta's Joe College and now Moore's Fluke.
Fluke: Or, I Know Why The Winged Whale Sings (can this guy come up with subtitles or what?) started out very promising, with a bit of everything - a good story (about one marine biologist's lifelong search for the meaning of the humpback whale's song), a good cause (the fact that even though you don't see as many "save the whale" bumper stickers anymore, they still need saving), bad guys (the military, whalers, biologists on the take), wacky characters (like a wannabe-rastaman who started life as a Jewish kid from Jersey), and a pretty funny and irreverent writing style from Moore.
And, for the first half of the novel, all of these elements gel to make for a fun ride. Then, somewhere around the middle the book, the story takes a unforeseen turn into science fiction that prevents the second half from being anywhere near as good as the first. I don't want to give to much away, so I'll just say that the story becomes such a fantasy that too much time is spent explaining it all away, at the expense of the smooth flow of the book up to that point. The story moves back and forth between the real world and the fantasy world, but their isn't much humor in the fantasy world and the attempts at humor in the real world are hampered by the absence of the protagonist (who's stuck in that un-real world).
Fluke wasn't a horrible story (which is the same thing I said about Joe College, that other second-choice book I had to settle for), but I was very disappointed in its sharp turn into the science fiction area, even if it wasn't your usual science fiction. The first half of the book showed me the Moore's writing style can be very unique and enjoyability offbeat, so much so that, despite my disappointment with Fluke, I would still like to read his Lamb. I just have to make sure it's on the shelf for real next time.
For now I have gone back and started re-reading Richard Russo's Empire Falls. I don't know if I've ever read a novel twice, but this is one of my all-time favorites and seeing the movie on HBO made me want to pick it up again - I'm a hundred pages into it and I'm glad I did. What a great book.
Last weekend I finally got around to putting a lock on our master bedroom door. Nothing big, just a simple latch, but it may be one of the most important home improvements I've ever made. While nobody wants to be interrupted during... um... relations, it's just as important to make sure kids aren't scarred for life from seeing their parents knock boots (as the missus so romantically puts it). Most folks wouldn't want their kids (or anyone) to have to see that. Unfortunately for the Mellows, their parents aren't like most folks.
The Mellow family of Meg Wolitzer's novel The Position don’t have the luxury of blocking out their parents’ sex life. Their parents are world-famous for writing Pleasuring: One Couple's Journey to Fulfillment, a Joy of Sex-like book that includes detailed directions (with drawings that look an awful lot like Mom and Dad) for performing pretty much any lovemaking position, including a new one created just for the book.
The discovery of their parents' book (high up on the family bookshelf) acts as the starting point for the story of a family growing apart and dealing with their fame/infamy in different ways. The fact that the book’s publisher wants to re-issue it for a thirtieth anniversary edition forces the family to once again deal with the book's legacy and each other.
With the unusual storyline, I expected the novel be full of either comedy or pathos, but Wolitzer finds a way to include a limited amount of both. She has a way of inserting day-to-day humor into her stories to keep them realistic, with little being played just for laughs. In the same way, she adds drama without turning everything into a melodrama. Wolitzer makes sure not to blame the parents' book completely for how the children turn out, which only adds depth to each of their stories.
I read Wolitzer's novel The Wife last year as part of my 52 novels in 2004 goal, and before that had read some of her short stories. After finishing The Wife, I was convinced that Wolitzer was an exceptional storyteller, and The Position has not changed that opinion. Even when writing novels, Wolitzer has a concise short story-like writing style that quickly pulls you into each family member's narrative.
The Position reminded me a bit of a kinder, gentler, less wacky version of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, which was one of my favorite reads from last year. While The Position isn't quite as good as that book, both take you deep into the the life of a family to the point that they feel like they could be the family down the block, or in the case of the Mellows, way up on the bookshelf.
Last month, after reading a pretty good Carl Hiaasen novel, I was in the mood for another light, funny, and quick read. Little Children, the latest novel from Tom Perrotta, seemed like such a book and had received plenty of good reviews. A check of the Philadelphia Library website assured me that the book was on the shelf of my local branch. Well, it turned out it wasn't on the shelf, but Joe College, Perrotta's 2000 novel, was.
While I can't say that my college years would make a great source of comedy (other than maybe a peek at my transcripts), Perrotta was the writer responsible for the novel that the movie Election was based on, and that film did such a good job of squeezing laughs from the awkward high school years that I had high hopes for Perrotta's take on college.
Joe College mined its humor from the junior year of Danny, a Yalie who can't quite shake his blue-collar roots. The story moves between Danny's life and (struggling) love life at school in New Haven and his life and (problematic) love life at home in New Jersey, where he spends his school breaks manning his father's lunch truck, the "Roach Coach."
Both stories were filled with plenty of off-kilter characters, and there was plenty of comedic tension anytime Danny's two worlds collided. The problem was that those collisions didn't happen often enough to keep the story interesting. Perrotta allowed both New Haven and North Jersey to have numerous story lines, many of them very funny, but there were so many little episodes centered around so many eccentric friends in both locales that it was hard to keep track of who had what idiosyncrasy.
Since Danny mostly played straight man to all these oddballs, his own story wasn't strong enough to move the story along. Add to that the fact that Danny (like most college students) often came off as so immature and self-centered that it was hard to like him and you've got a leading character who is tough to like enough to care about him and a supporting cast so large that you can't remember them enough to care about them. Not a good combination.
Joe College wasn't a horrible book, but it was still a disappointment. The most telling sign of my disappointment with this novel was how long it took me to get through it. It wasn't so bad that I gave up on it, but it wasn't strong enough for me to look forward to picking it back up. Thus, it seemed to take forever to finish a relatively small novel.
Right now I'm about halfway through Meg Wolitzer's The Position, which, happily, is an addictive story that I'm moving through pretty quickly.
Anytime Food Network, HGTV, or DIY has a sweepstakes, I'm all over it. $25,000 for new a garage? $50,000 for a dream kitchen? $100,000 towards landscaping? I'm there, there, and there. And the king of all of these sweepstakes has got to be the HGTV Million-Dollar Dream Home Giveaway. When that thing's going on I have a hard time thinking about anything else.
The great thing about these sweepstakes is that you don't have to do anything but give your name and address, and you can enter every day. You don't even need stamps anymore. The only sweepstakes that I don't enter are the ones that make you write something. You know, when they want you to tell them why you should win, or say why your wife deserves a new kitchen, or come up with a catchy new slogan for their glass cleaner, all in 25 words or less. These contests stop me dead in my tracks.
Evelyn Ryan, now she knew how to do those things. She's the subject of The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, written by her daughter, Terry Ryan. Since her alcoholic husband drank most of his paycheck, Evelyn entered as many contests as she could as a way to keep her ten kids fed and clothed. Lucky for them, this was during the golden age of sweepstakes - the forties and fifties - and she was very good at them.
By far, the most interesting parts of this book are the numerous entries that are reprinted from the notebooks that Terry Ryan's mother kept to track of all her submissions. A wide range of contests are represented, everything from losing entries that didn't even merit a $10 prize to this one, from a "name this sandwich" contest which won her a car and a trip to NYC:
Evelyn supplemented her winnings by selling poetry to magazines and local newspapers. Her poetic style, which often showed up in her sweepstakes entries, was very Ogden Nash-like (this one got her $25 from the Toledo Blade):
Birds of a Feather
To public buildings,
She quickly learned that the best entries didn't always win, sometimes you had to know what the judges wanted to hear:
[Contest-judging company] Donnelley had offices in all the major U.S. cities, but the Chicago office was known to prefer honest-sounding, straightforward entries, leaning to trite.
As much as I enjoyed reading these clever entries, I'm sorry to say that the rest of the book seems to have been written to please those Chicago judges: it's a little too honest-sounding, too straightforward, and too trite. Even when dealing with her father's drinking problem, Terry Ryan's writing is more than a little too gee-wiz corny for me to enjoy. Several times the same scene is described: the kids playing outside waiting for the mailman (loving nicknamed Pokey for his leisurely pace) to bring the latest prize announcement, just as the bank's threatening to foreclose (or just as the car breaks down, or just as one of the kids need new glasses, etc.). Wholesome is good, but after a while it gets kind of old. The book also seems to have been written at about an sixth-grade reading level, which certainly didn't add to my enjoyment.
I had heard about this book from a segment on NPR's All Things Considered. I don't want to slam this book too much, since it was obviously written as a daughter's loving memoir of her mother, but I now realize that something that sounds interesting for a five-minute segment doesn't always stay interesting for three hundred-pages.
In contest lingo, I'd say this book merits an honorable mention, at best.
This post was published using TypePad's "auto-post" feature. Comments may be left, but they will not be read by me until July 9, 2005, at the earliest . The family is on a much-needed, Internet-free vacation downtheshore. I have lined up a post for each day I'm offline for those of you who need your daily Long Cut fix.
A few years ago I latched on to Carl Hiaasen and read four or five of his novels in a row before finally growing tired of the sameness of them all. He's one of the funniest writers around, but after a while it was hard to tell one book from the other.
In his latest novel, Skinny Dip, Hiaasen wraps all those elements around the story of an on-the-take biologist who throws his pro-environment wife off a cruise ship because he suspects her of knowing about his fudging of phosphate numbers in the Everglades. Except, unbeknownst to him, the wife (a former star swimmer) survives and, as luck would have it, washes up on the secluded ramshackle island of a detective who was kicked off the force for not doing things by-the-book. Since they're pretty sure they can't prove to a jury that her smooth-talking husband tried to kill her, they decide to make his life a living hell by tormenting him until he either cracks up or ends up face down in his scummy over-polluted swamp.
So, yes, it was somewhat predictable. But it was also extremely funny and a very quick read, and after finishing a dry Ben Franklin bio and a downer of an Anne Tyler novel, I needed something light that would provide a few laughs. Hiaasen moves you so quickly through the book and throws in so many funny lines that you don't care that you know all along where the story is taking you, you're just happy to be along for the ride.
This time I realize the thing not to do now is make the same mistake I made a few years ago and read a couple more Hiaasen books. I think the secret to enjoying him is to take long breaks between novels. I still want to read lighter stuff for a while, so when I returned Skinny Dip to the library today I picked up Joe College by Tom Perrotta (who also wrote Election - which was turned into the Reese Witherspoon movie) and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, the true story of a woman who kept her ten children out of poverty by entering - and winning - "25 words or less" essay contests back in the forties and fifties. I had heard about it on NPR a while back and remembered wanting to read it.
[Note: The title of this post is a play on "Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead." You may be familiar with the movie, but before the movie it was the name of a very cool Warren Zevon song. What I didn't know (until I saw it on IMDb) is that Zevon took it from a line in Kerouac's On The Road: "Down in Denver, Down in Denver, All I did was die."]
Philadelphia is one of two American cities that Ben Franklin called home (the other being Boston, where he lived until he came to Philadelphia in his late teens). I don't know whether or not Boston embraces their Franklin connection, but Philadelphia certainly does. Much of the tourism advertising coming out of Philly features ol' Ben, and in the Old City section, where Franklin lived and worked (and where I've worked the last eleven years), it's hard to avoid the Franklin legacy. It's not unusual to even run into the man himself.
Even with all this Franklin history nearby, I still wasn't familiar his story beyond the usual grade-school-textbook profile of him: printer, writer, postmaster, inventor, and sage to our founding fathers. That's why I was interested in reading Gordon S. Wood's book, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. It promised to add the details that are often dropped from Franklin's story.
And the book does just that. Things that I didn't know, like his loyalty to the King (almost right up to 1776), his never fully being accepted into the gentry class because of his working-class origins, and his success in getting the French to repeatedly increase their funding for our war against the British. The book spends a lot of time detailing Franklin's years living in France, and a love of the French that made him consider staying there - and made many American politicians openly question his loyalty. I liked having the details of Franklin's life filled in. I now see him as a much more complex figure than just the hard-working and deep-thinking Quaker.
Unfortunately, as interesting as these new (to me) facts were, I found the book very hard to get through. I don't read many history books, but I did enjoy reading Joseph Ellis' Founding Brothers a couple years ago. I was expecting this book to hold my interest like Ellis' book did, but Wood's writing was so dry it took me forever to get through. I couldn't get myself to want to read it at lunch, in bed, or on the weekends (times when I normally do most of my reading) so all my reading was done during my fifteen-minute ride on the train to and from work. It's a shame, because the book covers interesting aspects of Franklin's life, but it really reads like a high school history book. I would recommend it only if you were really into Benjamin Franklin.
After finishing this book I went out looking for something a little lighter. I came up with about five novels that looked promising, but my branch of the Philadelphia library didn't have any of them. So I ended up with Carl Hiaasen's most recent novel, Skinny Dip. A few years back I was really into Hiaasen's books, but after four or five of them their plots all seemed to follow the same structure and, as funny as he is, I got tired of reading the same story over and over again. I figure now that enough time has passed to give him another shot. We'll see if I was right.
I have been "tagged" (which is a good thing, I think) by Karen to do a book meme that seems to be on its second trip around blog community. Here goes:
Grab the closest book to you. Resist the urge to get hold of one of the cooler, intellectual ones! You've gotta be honest. Turn to page 123. Go down five sentences, and then post the next three sentences in your blog. Simple.
The book closest to me now is the book I'm currently reading, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin by Gordon S. Wood. Page 123 puts you in the section titled "Becoming A Patriot." Five sentences put you at the start of the second paragraph and this passage:
Following the repeal of the Stamp Act, Franklin had begun to imagine an empire in which all the colonies were tied to Great Britain solely through the king, at least until some sort of fair and equal representation of the colonies in Parliament could be worked out. "In this View they seem so many separate little States, subject to the Same Prince." Modern historians have called this a "commonwealth" theory of the empire because it anticipated the idea of the empire expressed in the Statute of Westminster of 1931, which established the modern Commonwealth of Nations in which the independent dominions are tied together solely by their common allegiance to the Crown.
Captivating stuff, huh? Actually, over all the book is pretty interesting, if not exactly exciting. It's full of things that I didn't know about Franklin and his views going into America's independence. While colonialists were rioting over the Stamp Act and dumping tea in Boston Harbor, Franklin was over in London, sure that it was the British Parliament that Americans hated, not the King. He remained loyal to the King way longer than most revolutionists, and many were suspect of his loyalty to the American cause long after he pledged his support to it.
What amazes me is that all through school, right up to my last semester of college, I hated History class. And now here I am reading a history book on my own.
Now I'm supposed to tag three people, but I happen to know that my blog is read by a lot of people who don't have blogs (and one who rarely updates her blog), so I'll invite them, and anyone else, to participate in the comments section.
Update: They're coming in fast and furious - yep, I've been tagged again! This time by Scott (who, I'm sure I don't have to tell you, is "the most influential blogger in Philadelphia") over at his blog, Blankbaby. I think that one's going to have to wait until tomorrow.
In addition to being Cinco de Mayo, today is also 05/05/05. And we all know what a geek I am when it comes to weird dates.
So to celebrate this unique date, I have compiled five lists of five things having to do with five.
Top 5 "Five" Bands:
Bottom 5 "Five" Bands:
Top 5 Baseball Players To Wear 5:
Top 5 Dumbest Sounding "Five" Movies:
5 "Five" Books You Couldn't Pay Me To Read:
Ah, it's the classic story: Boy meets Girl, Boy marries Girl, Boy and Girl have a family, Boy and Girl spend thirty years questioning their decisions and wondering why they ever married each other.
Okay, maybe it's not a classic love story, but it does serve as the basis for Anne Tyler's novel The Amateur Marriage. It's the story of a couple who fell in love shortly after Pearl Harbor and did what all young couples did back then, they got married and started a family. Friends and family see them as the perfect couple - an example of opposites (he rational and introverted, she flighty and extroverted) attracting, but their differences often cause arguments and doubt. Do other seemingly "normal" couples have these same doubts?
The book takes you completely through their story, from the 1940's to present day, sometimes in his voice, sometimes hers (and later from a grown son's point of view). As the decades roll by the book stops at major events in the life of this family and their impact on an already precarious relationship.
While there's no doubting that this is an Anne Tyler novel (Baltimore setting, family story, dead-on dialog), the almost total lack of optimism kind of threw me. No matter how bad things got in other stories of hers, like Breathing Lessons, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and The Accidental Tourist, there was always hope, but for most of this book you don't feel hopeful. Those novels also had their moments of humor, something else that is missing from The Amateur Marriage.
And yet this novel is a good read not in spite of what it's lacking, but because of it. It's the story of two people who probably should have never gotten married, and that's not very hopeful or humorous. So it's not a happy story, but that doesn't mean it's not an interesting one. Tyler spends most of the time inside these people's heads and does a fantastic job getting both side's thoughts. You never blame one spouse over the other because neither is completely bad or completely good, they're just wrong for each other. It's not an easy story to tell, but I think Tyler does a good job tackling a tough subject.
Next up for me is The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin by Gordon S. Wood. Where else but Philadelphia can you walk out of a library with a Ben Franklin book and almost crash into a Ben Franklin portrayer?
It’s not everyday that a published novelist writes me suggesting that I read their novel, so Jason Headley’s email certainly caught my attention. Headley saw my positive review of a Richard Russo novel and mentioned to me that his debut novel, Small Town Odds, had been favorably compared to Russo’s work. That was enough to get me to read the book.
Small Town Odds documents a week in the life of the twenty-something Eric, a former brainy jock who’s one mistake five years ago forced him to abandon his dream of becoming something and getting out of his tiny rust-belt town. Through Eric’s interactions with his daughter (the product of his one mistake), her mother, his beer-guzzling old pals, his old high school sweetheart, and the regulars down at the bar he tends, Headley paints a pretty convincing picture of a down-on-its-luck community.
While Headley’s email was successful in getting me to buy his book, his mention of Russo also meant that I would be, no doubt unfairly, comparing a first-time author with a Pulitzer Prize-winning one. Small Town Odds does have the same low-key slice-of-small-town-life feel of many of Russo’s books, like Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls. And just like Russo, Headley’s book has only the slightest of plots to move it along. Russo, like Anne Tyler (another favorite of mine), can rely on his excellent writing to push the reader along even when the story moseys along. Headley’s writing skills, however, haven’t reached that point yet. I often had a hard time staying interested in the story. It wasn’t the kind of book that made me want to read it every free minute I had, like a great novel would. Headley also seemed to have trouble writing dialog, to the point that whenever there was conversation between characters the book read more like a script than a novel.
But I think that these are problems that Headley can overcome as he grows as a writer. His story in Small Town Odds is a good one, and before the book is over you can already feel his writing getting better. Headley should take comfort (if he once again stumbles upon my book reviews and sees this one) that I also think that Russo’s first novel, Mohawk, suffered from some of the same problems and showed the same hint of a writer bound to continue telling interesting stories and getting better and better with each one.
And speaking of Anne Tyler, which I was, I picked up her The Amateur Marriage at the library this week. I think I'm finally back to enjoying reading again.
After a bit of begging I was able to convince fellow Philadelphia-area blogger Becky of Good Grief to overcome her shyness and tag me for a book survey. Sometimes bloggers throw things out there for everyone to do (like Friday Random Ten) and sometimes you have to be "tagged" which is kind of juvenile and sends me right back to waiting (and waiting and waiting) to be picked in gym class.
Anyway, I first must state that Becky insist on calling this a survey, not a meme. She doesn't do memes. Oooooooo kayyyyyyyyy. I briefly considered insisting on calling it a compendium, but I'll stick with survey.
How many books do you read in a year?
If you had asked me last year I could have smugly said 52, but since than my reading has dropped considerably. I'm only on my third book this year, but in 2003 I did read about 20 books (all in the second part of the year). So let's say about 20 a year and cross our fingers that my reading productivity picks up.
What was the last book you bought?
Ever since I got my Free Library of Philadelphia card (a great deal - free to anyone who lives, works, or goes to school in the city) it's been unusual for me to buy a book, unless the vast library system doesn't stock the book. That was the case with Jason Headley's Small Town Odds. Headley emailed me a while back after seeing one of my numerous adoring posts to my favorite author, Richard Russo. Apparently Headley's debut novel had been compared to Russo's writing. I'm halfway through the book now and at best it's Russo-lite, but I'll stick with it and see if it gets any better.
What was the last book you read?
List five books that mean a lot to you or that you particularly enjoyed.
I'm a latecomer to the whole "reading for pleasure" idea, so I can't say there are a lot of books that "mean a lot to me" (except maybe To Kill a Mockingbird and a lot of that admiration comes from watching Gregory Peck play Atticus in the movie). So I'll list five authors whose writing I can't get enough of:
I've also developed a soft spot for debut novels from new authors.
Who will you pass this on to?
Like I said, I don't like the exclusionary idea of "tagging," so I'll open this up to everybody. Either answer in the comments or on your own blog and leave a link to it in the comments.
I have always loved Steve Martin. At least since the seventies, when my brother brought home Let’s Get Small (which my God-fearing Mom somehow let her catholic-school-attending nine-year-old baby listen to). The man is a comic genius who has pretty much done it all - writing, acting, stand-up. He even had a song hit number one.
How could anyone not love Steve Martin? Sure, he’s starred in dreck like the Father of the Bride remake (and sequel) and even some of his more sincere movies - like A Simple Twist of Fate - don’t quite hit the mark, but this is also the man who’s every appearance on Saturday Night Live rank among that show’s greatest moments. He’s the man who brought us Roxanne, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Man With Two Brains, and The Jerk. He writes amazing essays and even wrote a pretty funny play imagining Einstein and Picasso meeting in a French bistro.
So it’s very hard for me to express my disappointment with his latest novel, The Pleasure Of My Company. I wanted to like it, but in the end it turned out to be a slight book (its really more of a novella) with a slight plot that kind of just moved along without ever going anywhere. Martin’s greatest talent is his sly humor, but there is very little of that evident here.
The book starts out funny enough, with the protagonist, a neurotic who obviously suffers from a pretty bad case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (though OCD is never mentioned in the book), certain that his rejection letter from MENSA is due to a mathematical error (like maybe they left the “1” off of the front of his score). It looks like our hero will be the classic Martin delusional doofus; naively going through life thinking the world is on his side. But once you get through some of the comedy caused by the listing of his various obsessive tics (such as the inability to cross streets at a curb and the fact that wattage of the lights in his apartment must always total 1125), the novel has very few humorous moments. In the end (and I don’t think I’m giving anything important away here) you even find out that MENSA really did leave the “1” off his score.
It turns out that Pleasure's main character isn't unwittingly unaware of his delusions, he needs them to survive. Like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (written from the perspective of an autistic savant) and Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn (Tourette's syndrome), Pleasure contains a very plausible account of a somewhat unsound mind. Unlike those two books, Martin's book has very little beyond its main character’s illness. There are other plotlines, mostly dealing with romantic infatuations, but they’re all pretty thin. There’s even some attempt at oddball comedy, like an essay contest searching for “America’s Most Average Person” but they mostly fall flat.
I liked Martin’s first novella, Shopgirl, and enjoyed his play Picasso At The Lapin Agile, so maybe this book is just a hiccup in his brilliant writing career. Here’s hoping something better comes from his pen soon.
I finally finished my first book of the year, The Best American Short Stories 2004. That means that, just one year removed from reading 52 novels in ten months, I am on pace to read five books this year. I wish I could say that Best 2004 took so long to read because I was savoring each story, but, as Paul Reiser would say, not so much. Of the twenty stories in the anthology, I would say I liked about half of them. That makes it the most disappointing of these collections that I have read (I’d read five of them before this one).
I like reading stories from newly discovered authors, but the strongest stories this year came from seasoned storywriters – Alice Munro, Annie Proulx, and John Updike. Many of the other stories were instantly forgettable. I think one of the reasons that it took so long to get through the collection was the fact that many stories didn’t make me want to take the book out whenever I could squeeze some reading in. Instead, the book stayed in my briefcase and was only read while I was on the train.
Meanwhile, while I was struggling through the last few stories, I got a couple unusual emails that could help me decide what to read next. Last Tuesday I got an email from Jason Headley, an author I had never heard of. It seems he stumbled upon my blog and saw some posts praising my favorite author, Richard Russo. Turns out Headley’s debut novel, Small Town Odds, has been compared to Russo’s writing and was named one of the Barnes & Nobles top books of 2004.
Normally I would ignore an unsolicited email like this but I’m curious to see how close Headley comes to Russo - plus I’m a sucker for debut novels. If I were to end up liking the book, I would want to help spread the word about Headley (but if I don’t end up liking it, well, he’ll probably regret asking a blogger to read it.) Headley has posted the first chapter on his website, which is a good thing because the Philadelphia Library system doesn’t stock Small Town Odds, which means I would have to buy the book (I took all 52 of last year’s novels out from the library). I’ll read the first chapter starting tonight and see if it makes me want to read more.
To add to that weirdness, Saturday (right after I finished installing the dishwasher) I got an email from another author, Mark Winegardner. Seems he also stumbled upon my blog and saw the kind words I had for his book Crooked River Burning – one of my favorite books from last year. He is also the author who was picked to write the first post-Mario Puzo Godfather book. He wasn’t trying to sell me anything - just saying thanks - but I did see on his website that he'll be in South Jersey in April for a book signing. I would like to go see him, but I assume the book he wants to sign is his Godfather Returns, which I have no interest in reading. I can’t get him to sign Crooked because I never bought it; I took it out of the library. I’m not sure what to do about that. Hmmm, he does have a collection of short stories. Man, was I floored when I got his email.
Now if only Richard Russo would return my calls.
This morning I did something I haven’t done since finishing my 52 novels in 2004 goal in late October – I requested a book from the Philadelphia Library. Reading the obituary of Susan Sontag (pictured above) has made me curious to read some of her work. Since it’s a subject that I’m very interested in now, I chose her 1978 non-fiction On Photography.
I really have not had the urge to become involved in any book since finishing that fifty-second novel. I have enjoyed having the time to read the Philadelphia Inquirer from cover to cover, especially since there isn’t that obligation to finish what I have started. I thought that getting The Best American Short Stories 2004 would be a good way to ease back into longer works but the book has sat on my bedside table, unread except for the introduction, since the missus picked it up for me in October. For Christmas I received The Wilco Book and though I really wanted this for its bonus CD, I have been thumbing through it and reading a few things here and there.
While the goal I set for 2005 will have nothing to do with reading (I’m still trying to determine exactly what it will deal with), I do hope to continue reading – just not at the same rate, and not limited only to novels. The New York Times Notable Books year-end feature for 2003 and 2002 proved to be an excellent resource for selecting most of what I read last year, so the 2004 edition was the first place I went to for ideas for next year's reading. Here are the entries that caught my eye:
The Amateur Marriage. By Anne Tyler. Discovering Tyler was one of the highlights of completing my 2004 goal.
Runaway. By Alice Munro. One of the bad things about limiting myself to novels this year was missing out on short stories. Munro is a constant on “Best of” lists and a favorite of mine.
Alexander Hamilton. By Ron Chernow. Joseph Ellis's Founding Brothers was an interesting book about the guys who don’t have monuments in Washington, and I wouldn’t mind reading a little more about them.
The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. By Gordon S. Wood. It’s kind of hard to walk around Old City Philadelphia like I do and not become interested in Franklin.
John James Audubon: The Making of an American. By Richard Rhodes. One of the novels I read this year was Katherine Govier’s Creation, a fictionalized account of Audubon’s long trip into the Canadian wilderness. I’d love to see how his real life compares to Govier's excellent fiction.
Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age. By Kevin Boyle. I hope by not limiting myself to just fiction I can discover new (to me) non-fiction writers. The Inquirer review of this book, about the trial of a black doctor who went after the crowd that burned his house down in the 30’s, caught my attention.
That's it for now. Nothing too ambitious, I hope. Leave a comment if you have any other good suggestions. Just keep in mind that in addition to being a beer snob, music snob, etc., I'm also somewhat of a book snob (hint: I refuse to read The DiVinci Code).
Think of all the dumb things I write about. Now think of all the dumb things that I don't write about. Where do they go?
Throughout the week I bookmark interesting items that I might want to write about. At the end of the week I end up with the leftovers. Not substantial enough for its own post, too good (at least at one time) to let go. Here goes this week's:
1. Food Network keeps airing All Star Thanksgiving and I keep missing it. It's on this Saturday and again Sunday, both at 4:00pm. What's so special about it? Picture all the Food Network cooks together in one room. Rachael Ray. Emeril Lagasse. Alton Brown (pictured above). Sara Moulton. Tyler Florence. Paula Deen. I'm not crazy about most of these guys (except Alton and Rachael and maybe Tyler) but it's worth watching just to see the vibe between Alton and Emeril. Until they have a steel-cage fight between these two, this will have to do.
2. Congrats to Mark Winegardner who, after winning a contest, has written the first post-Mario Puzo Godfather sequel. Winegardner is the author of one of my favorite novels, Crooked River Burning. Here's hoping he doesn't get pigeon-holed into writing just Godfather books or get his kneecaps broken by angry Puzo fans. I'm hoping readers use the Godfather Returns as an entry point to all of Winegardner's writing.
3. I hope everyone noticed my new improved header banner and revised and detailed list of sites I hit ("Hitting..." on the sidebar).
4. And lastly, from McSweeney's, Cruel Nicknames for Overweight Vampires:
Vampire the Buffet Slayer
The Vampire Lestop For Some Tacos
Vlad the Inhaler
Child Of Candy Cain
Queen of the Hammed
Transylvania 6-5000 Calories
Have a great weekend!
Last Thursday the Philadelphia Inquirer Food section reviewed both the New Best Recipe book and Gourmet magazine's the Gourmet Cookbook. Gourmet is everything I don't want, complicated haughty-taughty recipes that take a week to prepare. But Cook's Illustrated are the people behind America's Test Kitchen, perhaps the best show on PBS now that This Old House has become This Old Millionaire's House.
Much like the Food Network's Good Eats, but without Alton Brown's goofiness, ATK goes step-by-step through everyday dishes. It explains the science behind cooking so you can decide when it's safe to alter a recipe and when it's not. It reviews products and kitchen utensils and lets you know when costlier doesn't mean better (did you know that you can substitute imitation vanilla extract for the real stuff at half the price, with no discernable difference?). As I watch each episode I think, I could make that. (I think the same thing watching New Yankee Workshop but deep down I know that I can't really match Norm without my very own Porter-Cable Model 3700L 10" Compound Mitre Saw with Twinlaser, but I'll save that for another wishlist.)
The cookbook that I currently rely on when I need attempt a new recipe or refresh my memory on an old one is my copy of the Joy of Cooking. While Joy was updated a few years back to make it more user-friendly and practical, my copy is eleven years old and is definitely not user-friendly or practical. I pretty much only bring it out for it's french toast recipe and it's measurement conversion chart. There's just way too many recipes in Joy that I'll never use (I don't see me making Mountain Oysters anytime soon).
From the Inky review it sounds like New Best Recipes is just what I want: recipes of food my family actually would want to eat. We are desperate to add some new dishes to our menu. It's probably also full of cookie recipes and I would be willing to attempt every last one of them (just in case the missus made it down this far).
So that's pushes my wishlist to three items and I'm sure I'm not done. But nothing will match my 7-year-old's epic list (cribbed from the list emailed to Santa):
Beyblade and arena
a Jakks Pacific Ms. Pac Man game
a Driving Force steering wheel for Lego Racers 2
CD ROM games ( like the Incredibles, Roller Coaster Tycoon 3, or whatever you think would be cool)
a remote control car
a Mario Golf Advance Tour (Gameboy)
Yu-Gi-Oh! Destiny board traveler
Nick Tunes Freeze Frame Frenzy
Spongebob Square Pants (Gameboy)
Tony Hawk's Underground 2 (Gameboy)
a rock polishing kit
a frog spoapstone carving kit
a radio controlled car kit
a camping lantern with remote control
a solar car kit
a bubblegum kit
Shrek 2 DVD
a Shrek 2 GBA Game
a radio controlled rush plane
EZ balance stilts
Air powered rockets
And it won't be a merry Christmas unless he gets everything (not that he will).
This morning I returned the Time Traveler's Wife to the library, unread. After completing my goal of reading 52 novels this year, the prospect of reading another novel, a 500-page novel, didn’t excite me. I have decided to not read another novel this year. Instead I will attempt to read the newspaper cover-to-cover everyday, something I love to do but haven’t come close to doing since last December. I also will keep the Best American Short Stories 2004 on my nightstand and dip into it when the mood hits me.
The few people at work who know about my reading goal have been asking me about the best I’ve read. So I have given it some thought and come up with the five books I have most enjoyed reading this year. Since I used the New York Times year-end “Notable Books” lists (and reviews) as my main reference in choosing my books (and since I’ll incapable of writing a succinct synopsis) I’ve also included the NYT blurb that first caught my attention. [The New York Times links require registration]
The Hills at Home, Nancy Clark. I keep expecting to hear more buzz about this book. I think it is just as well written as the more popular Corrections, and much funnier. Clark has promised that this is the first in a trilogy about the Hills. I look forward to reading the other two.
NYT: “Clark's funny, intelligent first novel reveals a special and particular kind of life, that of an extended old New England family in their 200-year-old clapboard homestead, where they survive miracles of inconvenience, eat tuna wiggle or fish sticks and express invincible opinions about everything.”
Atonement, Ian McEwan. This one did have a lot of buzz, since it was McEwan’s follow up to his Booker Award winning Amsterdam. Excellently written with a wicked twist at the end.
NYT: “The idyllic situation of an English family in 1935 disintegrates, starting with a crime; World War II is no help either in this novel by a writer who has the power to convey obsession and also to step outside and see how obsession looks to others.”
Crooked River Burning, Mark Winegardner. I lucked out picking this book as my first book this year. Had my first book been bad, I’m not sure I would have continued towards my goal. Winegardner matched history with fiction so perfectly that I kept wanting to Google the characters to see what they’re up to now.
NYT: “Winegardner weaves the love story through the fabric of a tumultuous era in which Cleveland, one of the birthplaces of rock 'n' roll, collides substantially in population, becomes the butt of many jokes and sees the Cuyahoga River catch fire more than once.”
The Risk Pool, Richard Russo. I didn’t need a NYT review to get me to read this. I love Russo’s books, especially Empire Falls and Nobody’s Fool. Russo’s debut, about a small-time hustler trying to raise his kid the best he can, goes right up there with the other two as my favorites. This year I also read Russo’s Straight Man, about office politics between college professors. It too was very good - maybe his funniest book - but it was not as good as the Risk Pool.
NYT: "Russo proves himself a master at evoking the sights, feelings, and smells of a town. . . . [The Risk Pool is] superbly original and maliciously funny."
The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen. I avoided this one for a while, mainly because of the whole Oprah book club thing (Franzen’s snub of Oprah put an end to her first book club). I’m glad I read it. I love semi-comical “family dynamic” novels and this book is both very funny and very well written.
NYT: “Franzen is a writer with old-fashioned virtues: he loves witty wordplay; his command of detail in an enormous range of interests is unassailable; he has a painter's eye for depth and contrast; and he creates characters whose emotions reach us even when they are hidden from the people feeling them.”
Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem
Straight Man, Richard Russo
John Henry Days, Colson Whitehead
Big If, Mark Costello
The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler
The Wife, Meg Wolitzer
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler
What to make of book whose protagonist isn’t the most interesting character? That’s the situation in Andrew O’Hagan’s Personality, book number 52 in my seemingly impossible goal to read 52 novels in 2004. The novel is primarily about the stress of fame on Maria, a child singer, as she grows out of a quiet childhood on a small island in Scotland to a demanding adulthood in London.
From the first chapter, which documents a body washing up on a beach during WWII, you know that the book is going to be about more than just Maria. It delves into the history of Scotland and the treatment of its Italian immigrants during the war (they were assumed to be Nazi sympathizers), the loss of a child, distrust, hidden family secrets and a whole bunch of other stuff before it even gets to Maria’s story.
At times during the early chapters, there is a “get to the story” feeling, but once the story comes it ends up being one of the less interesting of the book. Maria’s story of going from one show to another, dropping her family from her life, and struggling with anorexia and depression never changes. It simply serves as a weak backbone for stronger secondary stories.
What saves the book, and makes it one of the better novels I’ve read this year, is O’Hagan’s writing. His write with detail without getting bogged down. He accomplishes this by changing perspective and style. Everyone seems to have a say in their own short chapter or two. Styles include traditional narrative, newspaper clippings, TV interviews, and letters. The result is a very enjoyable book about not so enjoyable subjects.
Next up for me is nothing. I have reached my goal of 52 novels this year. I still have another novel out from the library that I plan on starting soon, and the missus picked up the Best American Short Stories 2004 for me and I look forward to getting into that. But for the time being I am going to enjoy reading the whole newspaper for a while.
As I said in my post on Caramelo, even though I’m reading a boatload of novels this year I really enjoy short stories. I buy the Best American Short Stories as soon as it comes out and print out the short stories that the Atlantic and the New Yorker post to their websites. I love the fact that the length of the format forces the author to write more concisely. The very best of them leave you wanting more and, in the space of about twenty pages, make you think about the lives the characters lead after the story is over.
Meg Wolitzer’s short story work was one of the reasons that I picked her latest novel, The Wife, as book number 51 in my drive to read 52 novels this year. I’m glad I did. The Wife is a full-length novel written in the concise style of a short story. The novel deals with the sacrifices made by the wife of a famous (and womanizing) author. Although the novel takes place over the fifty years of their marriage, the book moved quickly and smoothly. It never felt bogged down and I never found myself checking how much more I had to go. That’s saying something when you’re on your fifty-first book of the year.
Wolitzer has written a book about authors and publishing over the decades without requiring a B.A. in Literature to appreciate the story. Even lighter literary novels like Lost in a Good Book suffer from obscure (at least to me) references. Rather than placing her characters in the middle of historic authors, Wolitzer creates an entirely fictional circle of writer friends for the author and his wife.
The Wife is a very believable, funny, and well written novel with a great surprise revelation at the end. I finished this book thinking about the characters lives after the story had ended, just like I do after reading a good short story.
Next up is novel number 52! Woo hoo! I have eleven weeks to finish Personality by Andrew O’Hagan. Just in case it doesn’t take that long (and it better not) I also picked up Audrey Niffenegger’s epic-sized The Time Traveler’s Wife.
The other night I was reading my two-year-old son the Bill Cosby "Little Bill" book The Meanest Thing to Say, which is about the urban playground game "Dozens" where two guys go back and forth trading insults (how white do I sound trying to explain this?). You know - Your momma's so fat she has other mommas orbiting her. Stuff like that. About five years ago I bought the missus Snaps!, a book full of insults that's definitely not meant for the youngsters. Now (and all this was build up just so I had an excuse to steal from another website) just in time for tonight's debate, McSweeney's gives us Republican Dozens. You can check them all out here, but these are my favorites:
Your mother's SUV is so old, it takes four gallons to go around the mansion.
You're so unpatriotic, you once asked a question pertaining to the president.
Your house is so small, it has just a two-car garage.
Your mother's shoes are sensible—in the bad sense, like socialism.
Your fraternity is so ghetto it's located not in a student ghetto, but a real one, with ethnics and everything.
Nick McDonell was just seventeen when he wrote Twelve. That, along with some very good reviews, was the reason I chose it as book number 50 in my effort to read 52 novels this year. And I can tell you that this kid will one day probably write an excellent novel. But Twelve isn’t that novel. While the writing is outstanding the story reads like a bad Hollywood blockbuster, right down to the not-so-surprising surprise ending. McDonell hints at genius in his writing style, which avoids wordy descriptions and therefore moves along quickly. And it’s a good thing that the novel is quick moving and short (using the same wide margins loved by every seventeen year old student) because the characters and plot certainly don’t move the story along.
McDonell’s best-defined character, White Mike, is a NYC rich kid who takes a year off after high school to decide what he wants to do. What he ends up doing is selling (but never using) drugs to other NYC rich kids. Each encounter with these kids is documented in its own short chapter. The book takes place on the five days leading up to a New Year’s Eve party that all the characters have a part in. Much of the book deals with the way rich urban kids end up bored and neglected while their parents are out making more money or off spending it in the Caribbean or Europe. It would have been hard enough to care about these spoiled kids even if McDonell had bothered to develop the characters. And while the conclusion comes quickly, it – and a slapped-on postscript - is so ridiculous that I’m still not sure if it wasn't meant to be satire.
As one of the sixteen year old girls in the book says, Whatev.
Now on to the Wife by Meg Wolitzer.
I couldn’t go naming my blog the Accidental Blogist without ever reading the inspiration for the name, could I? So I selected The Accidental Tourist as book number 49 in my vow to read 52 novels in 2004. Not that it takes much to get me to read an Anne Tyler novel. She has quickly become one of my favorite novelists, and she wrote three of the 49 novels I’ve read this year.
For those of you who have not read the novel or seen the movie yet, Tourist is about Macon Leary, a Baltimore travel writer who hates to travel. He moves through life in a way that avoids any variations to his comfortable routine. This, along with the trauma from the killing of his young son, causes his wife to leave him. After breaking his leg Macon gladly moves in with his equally strange and change-fearing siblings.
He meets up with an unpredictable dog trainer his family has forced him to take his more-crazed-by-the-day pooch to and is fascinated by both her and his attraction to her. He goes happily along with her lifestyle for a while, marveling at the person he could be if he took more risks. But as the book comes to an end his wife decides, on the eve of their divorce, that she still wants to be with him. Familiarity and spontaneity take the form of these two women he must choose between.
It’s never a surprise that a Tyler novel is going to take place in Baltimore and be about family relationships. What has been surprising in the three novels I have read by her is that her stories unassumingly become powerful. And while the first two books of hers I read, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Breathing Lessons, were slyly funny, Tourist was often laugh-out loud funny. I would say that this was the best of the three.
I have not seen the William Hurt/Geena Davis movie, but I can see the book making a cool little film. If my local Blockbuster has deemed it worthy to keep on their shelves, I want to rent it. Otherwise I’ll have to beg my brother to get it for me on his Netflix account.
I’ve now moved onto Twelve, a strange little novel about an upper class Manhattan drug-dealing teenager. Nick McDonell wrote it when he was just seventeen.