Thursday, December 31, 2009

Consider the Lobster

A before-bed re-read. I like to read things that are engaging but not too exciting before bed, so that I can be sure I will ultimately go to sleep. Essays I have read before fit the bill nicely. (Especially when they're about Kafka, or dictionaries--both very low on the excitement scale but high on engagingness.) Standout track in this collection: The extremely long essay about John McCain's 2000 (not 2008) presidential bid. Wallace does so much in this one essay--it gets better every time I read it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Three Men in a Boat, to Say Nothing of the Dog- Jerome K. Jerome

It may come as a surprise to some readers--it did to me--that people were hilarious in 1889. In pictures they look so serious! At least one guy was making free with the jokes and timeless wit, though: Jerome K. Jerome, the author so nice they named him twice.

This amply-named and humorous fellow has allowed so much time to pass since writing his book that it is now in the public domain. This is good news for cheapskates. It would also be good news for the book's original publisher, who once remarked to a friend, "I pay Jerome so much in royalties I cannot imagine what becomes of all the copies of that book I issue. I often think the public must eat them." Maybe so--the book has been in print continuously for a hundred and twenty years.

I read this book for free on my iPhone--though I now plan to buy a copy--and you can download it to your computer for free at Project Gutenberg. I HIGHLY recommend you do so.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory- Kenny Fries

I found this book in the science section of my favorite used book store, which in retrospect probably started us off on the wrong foot (excuse the pun). As promised by its title, the book intersperses brief essays about the author's disabilities--and, of course, his custom-designed shoes--with brief essays about Darwin and Wallace, and the evolution of The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

...For kind of a long time. I was already familiar with much of the Darwin / Wallace history, but their story was presented cogently and compellingly, and held my interest. And the essays about the shoes, fine.

But not until fairly far in the book does the author blend the two narrative strands or treat larger questions of adaptability and 'ability' vs. 'disability' in different environments. Also, I'm not quite at the end of the book yet, but so far the author has not discussed his homosexuality--which is treated just as explicitly in the text as his disability--in any Darwinian context. Which, of course, he doesn't have to, but it just seems like the elephant in the room. Because although the catchphrase that means a lot to the author is "survival of the fittest," a rudimentary understanding of evolution by natural selection reveals that "reproduction of the fittest" more closely describes the actual mechanism...

I think my overall dissatisfaction with this book stems from my desire for it to be something it is not. I was hoping for a book of essays on themes social and scientific, written for someone who has studied that scientific field in depth. Which it is not. But just because the book is not well-adapted for the niche I had provided for it, doesn't mean it is not well-adapted for a different niche somewhere else.

There, I just explicated one of its themes for you. You're welcome.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Birthday or Whatever- Annie Choi

"That book made you laugh," said Amy, by way of lunchtime conversation.

"Yeah..." I said. "It's one of those, 'my life: with jokes!' It's good."

"Hey," said Amy. "Your review is done!"

And it is.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Unseen Academicals- Terry Pratchett

I was thrilled to see that Terry Pratchett had a new Discworld book coming out; I thought the world might already possess the last one it was going to receive. I was thrilled again--though slightly alarmed--to see it on a right-in-front-of-the-door, new-books-at-50%-off promotional table at Barnes and Noble. I bought the book right away, and returned my library copy, but wondered uneasily if it was on that table because it was not selling well. Or, more optimistically, if it was such a big name that it could be a loss leader or something. I'm going to believe the latter explanation, despite not really knowing what a "loss leader" is or how it works, so please do not tell me if you have information to the contrary.

In my ideal world, Pratchett would write two new books a year, timed to coincide with Christmas and my birthday, and they would all be about the characters in the Watch. I am never very excited when Pratchett introduces a new group of characters, but as I read I come to understand that in his wisdom he has not gone wrong. And in subsequent readings I like the new characters more and more, and realize that he has done the exactly right, best, most perfect thing. This book, which introduces yet more characters, is no exception. I read it with Amy and we enjoyed it very much.

It's hard not to look for telltale signs of the author's early-onset Alzheimer's ("is the loosened-up, slightly...different Vetinari any kind of stand-in for the author himself?") but I suppose that's something we'll just have to deal with from now on. I for one am thrilled to have gotten this next book, and will treasure whatever else Pratchett authors. Apparently he is indeed hard at work on the next novel in the Discworld series. Go, man, go!

For some reason, almost everyone I talk to has never heard of Terry Pratchett, despite his having sold millions upon millions of books worldwide. Which raises the question: who is buying these books? Is it one person? Where are they?
Anyway, I do a crummy job of explaining Pratchett to people who have not read him. I launch into my paean, and about four seconds in, people go "hmm" in a way that indicates they are hiding their true feelings. I should probably just mention to people that he was KNIGHTED by the QUEEN for services to literature, and leave it at that.
But I just can't help going on! He's a genius! Did you know you could even get knighted for services to literature? I didn't.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Stiff- Mary Roach

DO read this book, but DON'T read it before bed.

Or while you're eating.

Since I eliminated both of my favorite reading occasions almost immediately, it took me a long time to finish this book. But reading it was worth the dragged-out timeline, because the book is truly fascinating, focused, and surprisingly funny. I don't know whether Mary Roach won any awards for her writing in Stiff, and I am too lazy to find out, but she should have.

Consider the task she faced: to write about cadavers--remnants of our loved ones but no longer our loved ones, bodies which may have any number of mind-boggling adventures perpetrated upon them. (Not that--and this is key--not that they mind.) The book is informative (sometimes overly so), even-handed, thoughtful, and respectful. AND it's funny. It's laugh out loud funny. Let me tell you: you have not received those sidelong snortlaughing-while-reading-in-public looks until you are snorting in public while reading a book about cadavers.

How did Roach make her writing snortlaugh-funny, while writing about cadavers, without once availing herself of disrespectful cheap shots? I read closely to try and scry out her genius plan. According to my scrying, her genius plan was two-pronged. Prong One: wordplay. Any time a historical source or present-day researcher uses a slightly odd turn of phrase, that phrase is turning right around and cropping up again a few paragraphs further on, in a slightly surprising, playful or humorous way. Good stuff. (Consider the control she must have over language, to make these odd things stick out slightly and then to turn them gently on their ears. Hope she got an award for that, too.) Prong two? Her own quirky normalcy. She's talking about crazy ish sometimes, and she realizes how crazy it is. Sometimes it is a little repulsive. But she also finds it super-fascinating. The reader gets the impression that this lady would be excellent to talk to at a cocktail party...just as soon as you're through eating, that is.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Anthologist--Nicholson Baker

Baker's writing always strikes me as odd but enjoyable. Not until this book did I think to call it poetic, however. But I suppose it is, and the style suits the book well. For the novel's narrator, Paul Chowder, is a somewhat-successful poet who is trying his best to write the introduction to a poetry anthology. He is (dun dun DUNN)...The Anthologist.

But really, two aspects of this novel make it a particular pleasure. One is the narrator's careful and passionate explanation of poetic rhythm. If that sounds boring as hell, well, what can I say. It's interesting, in the way mundane things are interesting when described by someone who is passionate about them. Also it helps if you like poetry.

The other aspect is Nicholson's writing itself, as above. Somehow it always makes the ordinary seem new and just a little strange. His sly and witty narration also slips in some sideways truths about life and human psychology. I wish I had my copy to quote from, but it's back at the library already... ready for the next reader to check out. Do it!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Lacuna-- Barbara Kingsolver

Oh, hooray for Barbara Kingsolver! Hooray for The Lacuna.

Holding the library's glossy new copy of The Lacuna last week, I had butterflies of excitement in my belly but also some kind of creepy bugs of dread. Kingsolver's early novels and essays were a profound influence on me, and I return to them again and again. I also loved her most recent work, the nonfiction book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. (So much so that before I reluctantly returned my much-renewed library copy, bristling with sticky notes, I hastily purchased my own copy and transferred all the sticky notes over.) But her last two novels: not so much. And my anxiety about The Lacuna only increased when I heard an early, unflattering NPR review.

Well, dready bugs begone, and unflattering reviews be damned. The Lacuna delivers, in a big way. The writing is excellent; it is so good that slowing down to savor it is almost painful. The story is compelling, and the structure is flawless. It is everything I hoped for, and nothing I feared. How often in life does anything come through like that?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What is the What--Dave Eggers

"What is the What? What?" I thought when I saw this title. I found it off-putting: if the title was too difficult for my teeny cranium, I reasoned with my minute powers, I stood no chance with the book itself. Plus it looked like an improving book, which (I must shamefacedly admit) is also off-putting to me.

Turns out it's good though. The book is a semi-biographical tale of a real-life man named Valentino Achek Deng, a Lost Boy of Sudan. The novel's character, also named Valentino Achek Deng, narrates his life in several long flashbacks from the present moment of the story. So from the beginning, the reader knows important information about the end of the tale (e.g., that Achek does not die, that he moves to America, etc.) However there is a surprising amount of suspense along the way.

One thing of note to me was the novel's kind of double-vision perspective on America and American life. On the one hand, the reader can see how she would think about and react to present-day American Achek, and how she would understand the things that happen to him in America. His thoughts and reactions, though, come from a distinctly different perspective. The reader slowly comes to understand his perspective. The experiences that produced this perspective, and especially Achek's reflections on those experiences, are probably unfamiliar to most audiences--they were to me. Not a cheery read exactly, but thought-provoking and interesting.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Dangerous Book For Dogs-- Rex and Sparky

I ended up buying this book--at full price--because once I picked it up I couldn't put it down. Every page I flipped to made me laugh out loud. Literally. (And not the fake "literally," like when people are like, "I ate so much I was literally stuffed." No: in actual, literal fact, each page made me laugh out loud, right there in the store.)

Plus, I was on vacation. "It will have sentimental value," I reason sometimes in these situations. "I'll remember I got it on vacation."

Be that as it may, there is no need to wait for a sentimental reason to pick up a copy of The Dangerous Book for Dogs. It's just hilarious. Selected snippets that led to my public LOL'ing:

* examples of typically inane dog park statements from history (e.g., "467, Gupta Empire, Northern India: 'Have you heard about this new number, zero? Totally weird. It's not positive and it's not negative, so what the heck is it?'"; "1065, Norman Kingdom, France: 'You think we should conquer England next year? I kinda do. I dunno. My dad thinks we should.'")

* advice for dogs regarding peanut butter and pills ("How do you know if your peanut butter has a pill inside of it? Take this simple test. Is your owner giving you peanut butter? If the answer is yes, then the chances are good that there is a pill in it.")

As it turns out, the book was not really written by dogs named Rex and Sparky. It was written by some geniuses over at The Onion. The Onion newspaper itself does not shy away from hard-hitting pet-news coverage. See for example the landmark story Nation's Dog Owners Demand To Know Who's A Good Boy, and the troubling headline, "War on String May Be Unwinnable, Says Cat General". Unfortunately there is no story to go with the string headline, but there is a picture of a cat general. I'm almost sure it was Photoshopped.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Big Machine-- Victor LaValle

"Who is Victor LaValle?" asks the back of this book. "Well, that's a good question," I thought when I saw it. And then I saw that the likes of Mos Def, Kevin Brockmeier, and Amy Bloom were quoted beneath the question, attempting to answer it. Now: this is a crazy and awesome mix of folks, and I was hooked as soon as I saw it. And though almost all of their answers posit that Victor LaValle is a combination of various OTHER people I may or may not have heard of, I will go ahead and think of him as a combo of these three.

This genre-bender is interesting and suspenseful. Its lack of allegiance to any single genre keeps the reader guessing--anything in the world might happen next! No predicting this sucker. By turns surprising and thoughtful and dark, the book is hilarious throughout. I really enjoyed the writing, too. This was a good read.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Year of the Flood--Margaret Atwood

OK, so apparently the back story of The Year of the Flood sounds eerily like the back story of Oryx and Crake because Flood is Oryx's successor. And here I thought the world was just running out of back stories.

Had I known, I might have re-read Oryx before reading this one. Flood stands alone just fine, though, and reads like a guilty pleasure. It isn't a sequel to Oryx and Crake; I suppose it is the same story from a different perspective. Some characters are in both books. So, read the previous book or jump right into the Flood, it's up to you.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao--Junot Diaz

The first thing I have to say about this book is that I was halfway through it before I realized it was called The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, not The Brief AND Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." There was no "and." There was not even a comma. Why? What was the author trying to convey? Why subtly remove my "and," or my comma? I finished this book a couple weeks ago, but still the question haunted me. Until about thirty seconds ago.

Thirty seconds ago, the most basic possible Wikipedia research informed me that "[t]he title is a nod to Hemingway's short story 'The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber'." So, that answers that question. Obviously it raises the same question about Hemingway's title, but that is not a haunting question. Hemingway's "and"-less, comma-less title is very snappy. And, he's Hemmingway. (<--And AND comma.)

The second thing I have to say is that obviously this book is good. The Pulitzer Prize people think so. The National Book Critics Circle Award people think so. New York and Time magazines think so. A million people think so, and it is unremarkable that I am among them.

The third and final thing I have to say about this book is that if you do not speak any Spanish, get yourself a Spanish-English dictionary. A--most importantly--unexpurgated Spanish-English dictionary. Keep a little vocabulary list and by the end of the book you will be able to make all manner of impolite conversation in Spanish.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Narrow Dog to Indian River--Terry Darlington

Narrow Dog to Indian River by Terry Darlington. A travel memoir in which a septuagenarian English couple takes their skinny dog and their skinny boat down the broad American Atlantic coast. The male of the species establishes a narrative tone and really just...hammers away at that the whole time. The book was printed in blue ink, and the narrative voice is supremely irritating. I didn't finish it and I wouldn't recommend it. Nancy Pearl gave it two librarians up, though, so the book does have some excellent supporters.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Another in my mini-motif of England after the war. (Other elements of the motif: my grandmother; The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.) I want to have a literary society like the one in this book, where at each meeting someone talks about a great book they have read, and tries to entice others to read it. Only I'd like to have that society without also having a German occupation of my island.
I'm late to this bandwagon, but I really liked this quirky book and would recommend it widely.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Reaching the Animal Mind--Karen Pryor

I am hogging the library's copy of this book by renewing it constantly. It has lit a fire under me, so that I am:

(1) Cleaning up my dog's understanding of the cues I only half-assedly taught him. For the uninitiated, here's the breakdown: Teaching hilarious tricks with the clicker: fun and awesome. Putting the tricks under precise stimulus control: meh...
And this lack of stimulus control (i.e., my laziness) is why my dog looks like a crazed junkie trying to score his next click when I bring out the clicker. We go along ok for a while, but once he gets one thing "wrong" he goes "OMG, WHAT!!!" and throws everything he's got at me. Unfortunately this is pretty hilarious too, as he hops around looking for anything that he might get rewarded for pulling or pushing, climbing under or sitting on top of, holding in his mouth while he rolls over, etc. He tries anything I have ever taught him TO do, but not bothered to teach him WHEN to do. He remembers things that I have forgotten, that we haven't done in a year or more, and he's creative in applying and combining them. But while I'm laughing and admiring his smarts, he's so excited that he's freaking out a little. So that's not very nice of me.

(2) Training Uh-Oh Chicken to dance.

Plus (3) Writing myself a lengthy little document clarifying all my questions about clicker training.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I Capture The Castle--Dodie Smith

I'm reading this with Amy, though I shot ahead of her and am almost done. (A re-read for me, so I'm allowed.) I want to rattle this book at the author of the Twilight series and say "LISTEN, lady: THIS is how you do a book about coming of age and first love and all that crap. Clean up the writing, give it some wit, and for god's sake DON'T HARP. THAT will engage your readers." Ahem.
Between myself and Meyers though, only one of us has multi-million dollar book and film contracts and an entire youth subculture devoted to our works. So maybe she knows what she's doing.

But I I Capture the Castle is still way, way better. I wish for a 13-year-old daughter to spring fully formed from the woodwork in my house, just so the two of us could read this book together. (This hypothetical child could read Twilight too if she wanted, of course. I would be quietly puking in the wastebasket in another room.)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Little Stranger--Sarah Waters

I don't like to draw out the time it takes to read a creepy book, so it may be helpful to know that I read The Little Stranger in about a day and a half. (This "compression" method may make such atmospheric books even more overwhelmingly creepy, but for less long, so I keep doing it.)
Waters is known for non-creepy novels about English lesbians in various historical settings.** The Little Stranger is a departure from her previous work in that it is quite plainly creepy, and it contains no obvious lesbians. But fans will certainly recognize her other hallmarks: vivid evocation of place and psyche, and suspenseful storytelling. These elements combine in this book like milk and sugar in tea, to result in a delicious read. (Simile WIN.)

The creepiness in the story is subtle, though, and slips only slowly into the characters' pedestrian lives. We have a somewhat unreliable narrator, though we are not bludgeoned over the head with that fact: very light touches here and there give us insight into his subconscious motivations and feelings. His understanding of those people and situations around him is somewhat at odds with our own, increasingly so as the story progresses. But in addition to its creepiness and psychological veracity, the book has an even bigger thematic agenda: it also manages to explore class in post-war England, a time when the social order was changing.

The Little Stranger also happens to fit into a small post-war-England motif I have going at the moment. Elements of this motif are the book itself, and also my grandmother, who was in the RAF in the war, and with whom I am drinking thrice-daily tea while home. She has lent me another book on the subject, which is much more lighthearted but is rooted in the same truth: life after the war was just as depressing as life during the war. Food and supplies were still rationed, everything was poor and bombed out, and daughters and sons were dead forever, but now life was supposed to return to normal. Its plain inability to do so made some people feel hopeless. Waters also visited this time period in her last novel, The Night Watch. I found that book technically excellent in its Okazaki fragments, but also thoroughly depressing. This marriage of excellence and depressingness is often par for the Waters course. (If you want to put a silver lining on it, the frequency of this combination makes each book more suspenseful. As a reader you never know whether things are going to turn out okay, or--more often--not.)

**Lest this make her sound like a lightweight--she has twice been nominated for the Booker prize, and her first novel was named New York Times Book of the Year.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well-- Tod Wodicka

I read this reassuringly-titled book on the airplane, on the way to visit my family. Detailing as it does the interior life of a horrible mess-up (who messes up his life, and messes up his family, and messes up all manner of things...while blissfully and drunkenly void of self-awareness) is not the most cheerful book to read on your way to visit family. But it is an interesting peek into the combination of grandness and weakness and self-pity that leads the protagonist into doing what from the outside would seem inexplicably crazy stuff.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Birds Beasts and Relatives-- Gerald Durrell

I always check for books by Gerald Durrell at used bookstores, and last week I was rewarded with a library discard of Birds Beasts and Relatives. Durrell, a naturalist, is a close observer of birds, beasts and relatives alike. His adventures with each are hilarious. Like My Family and Other Animals, this book focuses on Durrell's boyhood on the island of Corfu in the 1930's. Originally published in the 1960's, both books were reprinted a few years ago. And good thing, too: each is a book to press on friends, parents and even grandparents. Idyllic and hilarious, these are excellent books for before-bed reading, for reading in waiting rooms, or enjoying with tea. Nothing hair-raising or objectionable...unless you find the specter of laughing out loud in public to be objectionable. In which case, read this book at home!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Wiggity what?!

So many of my favorite authors are dead, or have early onset Alzheimer's, that it is super-exciting when a favorite author has a new book coming out.

Margaret Atwood's new novel The Year of the Flood will be released on September 22. Like her most recent novel, Oryx and Crake, Flood seems conceptually fascinating, and so well-written that I will want to speed through to find out what happens, and simultaneously slow down to savor the language.
Oh: and also like Oryx and Crake,Flood is about a dystopic near future in which mankind's godlike power over science and nature has whipped around and bitten him fatally in the ass. I guess there's a lot of story to get out of that setup.

To be fair to the hardworking Ms. Atwood, she has not been sitting idle since Oryx and Crake. No, since the publication of her last novel she published a nonfiction book about economics, Payback, that I did not read; she published a collection of short stories, Moral Disorder, that I did read; she even published a collection of poems, The Door, that I did not even know about until I looked on Amazon when I started writing this post. Also, my favorite Atwood book for many years was the collection of prose and poems and proems and what-not called Good Bones and Simple Murders, which I never ended up buying for myself. Apparently Amazon has used copies for as low as $.01, so maybe now would be a good time.

As a side note, I once named a dog after Margaret Atwood. Fittingly enough, the story is not a happy one. While I don't blame the name, if I had a do-over I might try naming the dog after A.A. Milne or something.

Milne: "'Oh, bother,' said Pooh."

Atwood (from The Door): "That's what I do:/ I tell dark stories/ before and after they come true."

And she does it so well, you know?

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Magicians

This book was thoroughly enjoyable. I read part of the first chapter online--this is a genius marketing technique, by the way. Somehow I refrained from buying the book right away, and instead jumped in the hold queue at the library. Soon I was rewarded with The Magicians.

All the reviews will tell you the novel is "blah blah blah, a grownup version of Harry Potter." The "grownup" aspect does not just refer to the presence of adult content, but to the thorough and thoughtful exploration of some adult themes as well. And the book does make very conscious references to Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, etc. (Even to Infinte Jest near the end--I'm telling you, it's everywhere!) But the novel is far more than just a pastiche of these classics. It has a gripping story and some complex, interesting and funny characters. I particularly enjoyed the dialogue, which was witty and incredibly natural. This was a good read.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Triple Whammy III: Infinte Jest

Infinite Jest is just about the biggest whammy possible. Coming in at just over a thousand pages, it's a bonerfied giant tome. As Lenz would say.

And those pages are just packed--packed, I say--with content and ideas and six-course meals for thought. So much so that now the book relates to just about everything I read or hear about. For example, BOTH the other books I finished this weekend reminded me in their wildly different ways of Infinite Jest. (Then We Came to the End: group membership vs isolation, and the redemptive or map-eliminating aspects of each; The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (!): pretty much just unasked-for descriptions of chemistry.)

Finishing the book was a mixed pleasure, as I was tired and pressed for time. For several days I had been referring back to the beginning of the book, eying the dwindling number of pages remaining at the end, and wondering how we were going to pack everything in that would apparently need to happen. The answer is: we don't. We don't do that. We leave it as a bizarre puzzle for the reader to figure out. (Or, alternatively, a puzzle for the reader to say "Oh for god's sake" about and look up quickly on the internet.)

Reading this book was work, but a satisfying and gratifying kind of work. I had, like, equipment. There was my pen and special notebook for jotting down notes, questions, & timelines*, plus also I needed the Dictionary app on my iPhone. So much so that I booted the Phone app out of my iPhone's dock to make room for the Dictionary app, the social implications of which are somewhat disturbing.

If you love to read, don't be put off by the book's length or its esoteric vocabulary or its postmodern (post-postmodern? what does that even mean?) sensibilities.** I'm here to tell you: I've read the book and it is good. Dive in!

* Apparently there are good reader's guides available, which probably take care of the note-jotting and question-noting aspects.

** I took a seminar in college on postmodern lit. On the first day of class, the professor asked us for our conceptions of postmodernism. "Oh shit," I thought. "I thought SHE was going to tell US." I had no idea. However, a more prepared classmate offered his idea of postmodernism: "elitist crap." Those two words have really stuck with me. Even the professor acknowledged he was onto something.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Triple Whammy II: Then We Came To The End

"Awfully funny" says Nick Hornby on (and about) my copy of Then We Came To The End, purchased last year at The Bookstore Where Books Are A Dollar. And folks, Nick Hornby tells no lie.

This was my second time reading this book, and the first time through I remember taking it kind of hard when bad things happened to various people. The book made me laugh but it also made me kind of sad, and I put it in the maybe-give-it-away pile. With some time to think about the book, though--and I thought about it a lot--I snatched it back from that pile and found it a spot in the yellow section of the permanent collection.

I read it with Amy this time through, reading aloud to her when we were together and skimming to catch up when she read on her own. Reading aloud--and reading a book for a second time--makes me pay much closer attention to the language, which was particularly interesting for this book. It is written mostly in first person plural, and it is done so well that that fact faded from my consciousness very quickly, the first time through. But THIS time the POV stayed foregrounded, because reading all those "we" sentences aloud was crazy.

All those "we" sentences, read aloud, sounded like poetry. And there was a lot of reading aloud while Amy, e.g., weeded out the tomato patch or washed dishes. So overall it felt like I was reading poetry REALLY LOUDLY in the garden or from the kitchen floor: a crazy feeling. This time through, I also reflected on the funny/sad dynamics. I think the book is hilarious and thoughtful in little ways--in the interactions between people, the things that are important to them, etc. But in big ways, it is thoughtful and sad. It's about work, and groups, individuals, and relationships between and among people (duh, cause of all the "we"s). It even has a little mystery you can solve for yourself when you come to the end. Recommended.

Triple Whammy I: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

This weekend I finished three books that I had been reading for vastly different amounts of time.
The quickest read was The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. It's a cute little story about a kid in the English countryside in the 50's. She lives in a manor and has a deep and abiding love of chemistry. Her name is Flavia and she is eleven. And, since this is a mystery story, she solves a murder.

Of chief note to me was the freakish little heroine's love of chemistry. Many years ago, while taking an Organic Chemistry course against my will, I realized that Organic Chemistry could be kind of interesting in a different context. It could be made into a video game, like Tetris. It would be kind of a fascinating puzzle, and kids would like it.

Instead, in actual life, it was a giant course required for bio majors like me, and also functioned as an unofficial weed-out for pre-meds. Its grading system was a steep and strict curve, so one's grade was determined relative to the performance of everyone else in the course. The worst part of all this for me was that there were somehow people in the course doing way worse than I was, but as the semester ground on, those people would start to DROP the course. And everyone would shift to the left on the curve, to fill in the bottom end. I didn't know who was more deserving of my book-toting ire, those Ivy League pre-meds crowding the top end, or the no-good dropouts creating a suction in the bottom end.

Anyway, Flavia would have been waaay beyond that course by the time she hit college. Even as a youth she would not want to play my Organic Chemistry-cum-Tetris game, because Organic Chemistry would be joy and game enough. But I don't hold that against her. She's a spunky and kind kid and I enjoyed reading about her little adventure.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

To read:

I'll write them here so I don't forget...every once in a while I do realize I'm almost out of things to read (scree! scree! scree! scree! Psycho music)

Susan Jane Gilman, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven (travel memoir--Nancy Pearl review--Gilman's previous book Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress made me laugh til I cried)

Jane Alison, The Sisters Antipodes. (Another Nancy Pearl review--would not normally appeal but NP made it sound so very interesting and well-written)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A supposedly fun summer

I have been out of work for three months. It's been like a summer vacation, albeit a summer vacation in which I can't really go anywhere and I kind of hurt.

Just before I had surgery in July, I realized that post-surgery would be a perfect time to read Infinite Jest. Approximately the size of two bricks, Infinte Jest had been exerting a gravitational pull on me for quite some time. I would wander over to it at the one library that carried it, heft it in both hands, consider my upcoming schedule and the other books I had to finish reading, and reluctantly put it back. This happened numerous times. A couple times I swung by that library with card ready to finally check it out, and it wasn't there. Infinte Jest and I were star-crossed.

But with my schedule pretty much cleared for me, I asked my partner to actually buy a copy. Like at the bookstore. I looked forward to the few ounces the paperback would shave off the library's hardback, plus no due-date stress.

Best. Purchase. Ever.

Getting ahold of it was a little tricky: The puzzled clerk at the first bookstore reported the store was sold out of its normal three copies, adding "we didn't even sell any last year when he [the author] died." I googled the mystery and immediately found Infinte Summer, an enormous group of folks who have depleted bookstores nationwide in order to read the book together this summer. My partner found me a copy, and a month and a half after the other readers had started I cracked open the book. Here is my brief and spoiler-free summary of the reading experience:

First 300 pages: Well, I've heard it's good...
Second 300 pages: Ooh, this is really good...
(Throughout: furious note-taking and dictionary-wearing-out)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

How to Buy a Love of Reading

It's $16.92 in hardback at Amazon, $9.99 to put on your Kindle, and $13.12 for your Audible audio player. But I got mine from the library, and to the library it (the book--not the love) will soon return.

Interesting premise in a nutshell: a teenage girl's nouveau riche father rents an author, hoping to (a) impress the neighbors, and (b) commission a book that will inspire in his non-bookish daughter a love of reading.

There are aspects to this book I really enjoy, including its wit and its playful riffs on/with postmodernism while remaining blessedly reader-friendly. The character of the daughter, also, is truly likable. As a reader I enjoy discovering the surprising layers to her superficially bland character, and root for her to become the strong person she has the potential to be. If I were going to continue reading the book, it would be for the sake of the doubtlessly satisfying developments in this area.

But I am not going to continue reading it. I'm on page 175, a little less than halfway through. The plot is moving slowly, and I feel like I've read passages that impart the same general information or mood again and again. As in the second Twilight book (which finally extinguished my interest in the series), a lot of time is spent on anguished teenage nail-biting and soul-searching. The conflicts, social milieu*, and secondary characters are largely uninteresting to me.

There are so many underlying good points, though, I will probably check out the author's next book.

* I've spent my share of time socializing (read: drinking) with teachers at a private school in the Hamptons. They describe kids like this novel's teens, whose enormous disposable incomes and minuscule parental presence have had predictably deleterious effects on the kids. So I know first- (okay, second-) hand that these situations happen. But...this book didn't really make me care.