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.