Wednesday, May 30, 2007

To Catch a Predator

About a month ago, I was at the library checking out books (hey, that reminds me of an errand I have to run tomorrow). I didn't really know what to get and came across Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. It was one of those books I'd been meaning to read in a non-specific way, or perhaps felt as though I should read. After all, it's a huge cultural touchstone. "Lolita" has kind of become a generic term for what we less elegantly called "jailbait" in college, and those of you who remember the whole Amy Fisher-Joey Buttafuco thing will remember the nickname the press gave Fisher: Long Island Lolita.

I'm not really sure what I expected from this book, but I was surprised anyway. The basic plotline runs like this: Humbert Humbert, a European man who realizes early on that he's sexually attracted only to prepubescent girls, comes to America and rents a room in Lolita's house. He becomes obsessed with her and marries her mother, who dies one month after their wedding. He ferries Lolita around the country for a year, then they settle, then they pick up and move again. He ultimately loses her (I am not spoiling much; it becomes clear early on that he is writing from prison and Lolita is no longer in the picture).

Humbert Humbert is a thoroughly unlikeable character. All the creepiness aside, he is, to put it bluntly, an asshole. He really hates women, and doesn't even really like Lolita that much. He wants the reader to pity him, but can't even cast himself in a sympathetic light. It's telling that you never get a sense of Lolita as a person. His characterization of her utterly fails the Maxwell Perkins test: you would never know her should you meet her on the street. Often, when you see this, it's a sign of poor writing. In this case, it's another clue to Humbert Humbert's character. He wrecked his life (pathetic as it was) over Lolita, permitted himself to break laws and violate social standards, yet his desire for her is similar to one's desire for an SUV or a Prada bag. He just wants, wants, wants, and schemes to have. And when he gets it, he's not satisfied: he either worries it will slip away (he controls every aspect of Lolita's life very tightly) or he picks it apart, looking for flaws (he and Lolita fight constantly).

What we do get of Lolita does not come off very well, either. She's moody and bratty, and she's also extremely manipulative. Her story does not have a fabulous ending, and one can only speculate what kind of effect her strange teenage years had on her. She's certainly not entirely innocent, though: she seduced Humbert Humbert, and he was not her first, although she was only 12 at the time.

What we have here is basically two unlikeable individuals trapped in a relationship that is destructive, sickening, and unhealthy, even if you were to imagine it as a relationship between two people of the same age -- and yet, you can't look away. Over 50 years after its initial publication, Lolita still has the ability to fascinate, to shock, and to raise questions.

I was at the beach this evening and saw some girls, about the same age as Lolita is at the start of the book, wearing short shorts and tight-fitting tank tops. It made me think about this book, and about the current hysteria surrounding internet predators and child molestation. There's a great outcry to preserve the "innocence" of children, but how innocent are they -- then, or now? What kind of message do you send when you dress young girls up in clothes that would make a barfly blush, and yet expect men not to even think about looking? How, and why, do people become pedophiles anyway? There are no easy answers to these questions, either now or when Lolita was first published, but if we as a society are serious about preventing child molestation, it would behoove us to start thinking about them.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

What's My Name, Fool?

I am not a sports fan, never have been. I enjoy seeing playoffs for things, especially if a team from my hometown is involved (although they always lose). I like the Olympics, particularly the figure skating. Sometimes I swim or ride my bike in the summer. That's about it.

What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States by Dave Zirin may seem like an odd choice of a book for me, then. I started reading reprints of Zirin's column at, primarily because visiting that website (even if you're a liberal too) is a lot like being shouted at, and I needed a break. I don't know how conservatives tune into things like Rush Limbaugh and the O'Reilly Factor. Don't they give you headaches? Anyhoo, his column seemed to go deeper, to acknowlege that the sports industry and the individual players within it are part of a larger society.

Zirin's book is about sports and politics. When I told this to my boyfriend, he gave a common response of sports fans: "There shouldn't be any politics in sports." Zirin addresses this point in his book, and counters with the bald fact that like it or not, they're there. His book opens with explosive chapters on Jackie Robinson, Joe Lewis, Muhammed Ali, and John Carlos and Tommy Smith's Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics to show how sports played an integral role in the civil rights movement. In the Robinson chapters, he notes how some whites, in seeing him get booed and harassed by their fellow Caucasians, deliberately differentiated themselves, cheering for him and acting disgusted at the harassers, introducing the notion that overtly racist behavior is unacceptable.

He next travels to sports and labor, discussing the introduction of free agency into baseball, and contrasting it with the boxing union, which is only a few years old and up against an entire system designed to exploit the boxer. These chapters, on labor and racism, are the strongest points of the book. The chapter on gender, and the chapters dealing with modern resistance to racism and war, are much more diffuse and have an anecdotal feel to them.

There is a smattering of stories from college-level sports as well as professional. He covers some Big Stories: the death (and posthumous exploitation) of Pat Tillman, the steroid accusations against Barry Bonds (surprisingly, he believes Bonds and defends him), Kobe Bryant's rape trial, the brawl between Ron Artest and a fan. But you also find many lesser-known tales: former Notre Dame basketball player Danielle "D-Smooth" Green, who went to Iraq and came back without her left hand; basketballer Adonal Foyle, who founded a campaign-finance reform organization called Democracy Matters while he was an undergraduate; the death of DC high school football player Devin Fowlkes, who might have survived the gunshot wound had the city not closed the nearby trauma center for lack of funds (although they had the money for a new sports stadium).

At some points, the book felt a little simplistic. Zirin makes his points with lots of force, which is a good thing -- no one wants to read a wimpy book. But sometimes he pushes too hard and overestimates the effects (positive and negative) of the actions or inactions of those he's profiling. But his writing is always engaging. He likes the colorful similie: "more racist than a Bob Jones University course syllabus;" "more technical fouls than a Dennis Rodman with Tourrette's syndrome;" "folded faster than a rib joint in Tel Aviv." Like all good color commentators, he's good at getting at the human side of the game, even when the human side is none too pretty to look at. I look forward to his next effort.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Another meme

The last one was fun, so inspired by that (and my D-list rating as a blogolebrity), I decided to do this meme, which I found at Chris's Book-a-rama

A book that made you cry: My Dog Skip, by Willie Morris. Most of the book is fun and happy, but the ending gets me every time. I tear up whenever I think of the last line: "They say they buried him under the elm tree in the backyard. But he really laid buried in my heart."

A book that scared you: Gerald's Game by Stephen King. I did not get a good night's sleep for six weeks after reading this one. I will never read another one of his books again.

A book that made you laugh: Straight Man by Richard Russo. Every time. "They ARE a metaphor. If they were LIKE a metaphor, they'd be, like, a similie."

A book that disgusted you: Dreamland by Kevin Baker. It was excellent up until the very end. Then, they totally copped out.

A book you loved in elementary school: In honor of the man, we're going to go with The Prydain Chronicles, although there were many, many books I loved in elementary school.

A book you loved in middle school: Honestly, I remember no books from this era. I must've read something, but I don't recall it, or much else from middle school, come to think of it.

A book you loved in high school: On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Reading that book made me badass!

A book you hated in high school: I generally don't remember the ones I hate.

A book you loved in college: Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver. Thank you, Dr. Kutzer, for introducing me to this writer.

A book that challenged your identity: I guess I don't really understand this one. I can think of many books that challenged my beliefs or ideals, but none that challenged my identity itself. Maybe because a big part of my identity is as a reader of books, and that can't really be challenged while I'm holding one? I don't know. Perhaps I've never read one. Or perhaps, if it successfully challenged my identity, I can't recall it now because it became a part of me.

A series that you love: Harry Potter!

Your favorite horror book: I don't like them.

Your favorite science fiction book: Is Welcome to the Monkey House sci-fi? If so, I pick that.

Your favorite fantasy:
Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.

Your favorite mystery: And then there were none or Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie.

Your favorite biography: Is autobiography OK? If so, readers of this blog will not be surprised to find that I like The Dirt by Motley Crue the best. I also like the autobiographies of wrestler Mick Foley ("Mankind"). Most people have a low opinion of professional wrestling, and it deserves it. After reading his books, you'll have a new respect for those who do it, for those who spent their twenties driving 12 hour trips and fighting in a high school gym, selling pop before and after their matches, for a $40 payoff. He's very funny, too.

Your favorite "coming of age" book: I would say any of the Traveling Pants books. I like how positive they are, and how they really explore friendships, which are more complex than most writers make them out to be. The girls drift and come back, fight and make up, withdraw in times of trouble, support one another, and sometimes fail each other, which is, of course, what it's really like.

Your favorite classic: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Has been a favorite since first read.

Your favorite romance book: This will make me sound sick, but I guess I like Candy by Luke Davies. I've never been into "romances", and it's the only one I can think of that is, essentially, a love story, although it's a pretty twisted one. I understand there's a movie now. I need to check it out.

Your favorite book not on this list: That's an extremely difficult question. There are so many that I love. But a cursory glance of this list shows that The Poisonwood Bible is not on it, so I will pick that one.

That was fun! I am stealing another part of the meme off Chris: the part at the end that invites you to try it and comment if you do. So, please do.

RIP, Lloyd Alexander

More sad literary news today -- I just learned that one of my favorite writers from childhood, Lloyd Alexander, passed away over the weekend. He was 83.

Lloyd Alexander was the author of many books, but I loved him for his Prydain Chronicles. I was, in fact, obsessed. Perhaps it's why I understand the Harry Potter mania so well. I would've bought every piece of Prydain swag I could lay my hands on (I did, actually, but the only swag was a video game) and waited at the stores at midnight for new books. I would've decorated my bedroom entirely in Prydain stuff, had it been available. What i really wanted was to BE Eilonwy or Taran, but I would've settled for sleeping in Eilonwy sheets and carrying a Taran bag.

The five books chart the life of Taran, who lives with a powerful enchanter named Dallben and works as Assistant Pig-Keeper on his farm. Taran is very young when the books open -- they never specify, but perhaps as young as 12, and certainly no older than 15. One would not think that an Assistant Pig-Keeper would have many chances for adventure, but Taran manages, thoughout the course of the series, to go on several missions to fight the evil Arawn, and to make friends with a colorful and powerful cast of characters. Eilonwy is a princess, sorceress and fellow orphan. Fflewddur Fflam fancies himself a wandering bard, and has a wonderful harp that snaps a string every time he stretches the truth, but we learn much to our surprise that he is really a lord. Gurgi is a not-quite-human, not-quite-animal creature who speaks of himself (and everyone else) in the third person.

The books are based, loosely, in Welsh legend. I was surprised to see the name of the crown prince, Gwydion, plastered all over a classroom in Wales, and the Isle of Mona, where the third book in the series is set, is a real place, known as Ynys Mon (or Anglesey) today. Lloyd Alexander was an American, but travelled to Wales while serving in the Army and, as anyone who has spent much time there would, fell in love with it and never forgot his experiences there. (Just looking up the spelling of "Ynys Mon" has made me want to return!)

The final book in the series, The HIgh King, won the Newberry Award that year, although I hate the ending of it. But my favorite book in the series, The Black Cauldron was the victim of one of the worst film adaptations I've ever seen. The book was rather dark, dealing with the darker human emotions like pride and anger, but also with the nature of heroism. The film was cheesy and rosy, and uniformly failed to capture the essence of Alexander's characters. Eilonwy was the worst. In the books, she's independent, funny, brave, smart, an excellent fighter, a real adventurer, and the kind of woman girls should aspire to be. In the movie, she was so simpering and wimpy that the change could only be explained by blatant sexism. Perhaps Disney felt the world was not ready for an Eilonwy, although they probably changed their minds when their film sank faster than Gigli yet the books have endured to this day. I still think that a film version of this series, an honest adaptation, would do well, but I would not have blamed Lloyd Alexander if he didn't want the film studios within 500 feet of him after The Black Cauldron.

Lloyd Alexander could have left the world a substantially better place on the strength of these five books alone, but he wrote over forty books. He had two other series, and several stand-alone books. I tried some of them, but none of them were like the Prydain books. In a way, I guess, no books have ever again been like the Prydain books for me. I read them on the cusp of, not quite adulthood, but as I was leaving childhood. I was coming to understand, once and for all, that no matter how many wardrobes I walked through, they would contain nothing more than coats, ever. I still enjoy good fantasy books from time to time, but that is all they are to me now. The Prydain books were the last books that I believed I could, in some way, be a part of somehow. They are still good when I read them today, although not the same. Thank you, Lloyd Alexander, for those last few moments of belief. I hope you are now in a place that is ten times better than Prydain and Narnia put together.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

My First Ever Meme -- 100 books

Normally, my souvenirs from my travels through the blogosphere are links for the sidebar. Tonight, it's a meme. I saw it at Amanda's Weekly Zen. Thanks to her. If you like it, pass it on.

Look at the list of books below:
* Bold the ones you’ve read,
* Italicize the ones you want to read
* Leave blank the ones that you aren’t interested in.

1. The DaVinci Code (Dan Brown)
2. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
3. To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
4. Gone With The Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
5. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Tolkien)
6. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien)
7. The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers (Tolkien)
8. Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery)

9. Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)
10. A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)
11. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Rowling)
12. Angels and Demons (Dan Brown)
13. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Rowling)
14. A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
15. Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden)
16. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Rowling)
17. Fall on Your Knees (Ann-Marie MacDonald)
18. The Stand (Stephen King)
19. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Rowling)
20. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
21. The Hobbit (Tolkien)
22. The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
23. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
24. The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)
25. Life of Pi (Yann Martel)
26. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
27. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
28. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis)
29. East of Eden (John Steinbeck)
30. Tuesdays with Morrie (Mitch Albom)
31. Dune (Frank Herbert)
32. The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks)
33. Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)
34. 1984 (Orwell)
35. The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley)
36. The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
37. The Power of One (Bryce Courtenay)
38. I Know This Much is True (Wally Lamb)
39. The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
40. The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)
41. The Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean M. Auel)
42. The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
43. Confessions of a Shopaholic (Sophie Kinsella)
44. The Five People You Meet In Heaven (Mitch Albom)
45. The Bible
46. Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)
47. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
48. Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt)
49. The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)
50. She’s Come Undone (Wally Lamb)
51. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
52. A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens)
53. Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)
54. Great Expectations (Dickens)
55. The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)
56. The Stone Angel (Margaret Laurence)
57. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Rowling)
58. The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough)
59. The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
60. The Time Traveller’s Wife (Audrew Niffenegger)
61. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
62. The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)
63. War and Peace (Tolstoy)
64. Interview With The Vampire (Anne Rice)
65. Fifth Business (Robertson Davis)
66. One Hundred Years Of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
67. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Ann Brashares)
68. Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
69. Les Miserables (Hugo) unabridged, thank you very much!
70. The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
71. Bridget Jones’ Diary (Fielding)
72. Love in the Time of Cholera (Marquez)
73. Shogun (James Clavell)
74. The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje)
75. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
76. The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)
77. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
78. The World According to Garp (John Irving)
79. The Diviners (Margaret Laurence)
80. Charlotte's Web (E.B. White)
81. Not Wanted On The Voyage (Timothy Findley)
82. Of Mice And Men (Steinbeck)
83. Rebecca (Daphne DuMaurier)
84. Wizard’s First Rule (Terry Goodkind)
85. Emma (Jane Austen)
86. Watership Down(Richard Adams)
87. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
88. The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
89. Blindness (Jose Saramago)
90. Kane and Abel (Jeffrey Archer)
91. In The Skin Of A Lion (Ondaatje)
92. Lord of the Flies (Golding)
93. The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck)
94. The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd)
95. The Bourne Identity (Robert Ludlum)
96. The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)
97. White Oleander (Janet Fitch)
98. A Woman of Substance (Barbara Taylor Bradford)
99. The Celestine Prophecy (James Redfield)
100. Ulysses (James Joyce

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Straight Man by Richard Russo

At the moment, I have two wonderful books going, one at work and one at home. The problem is that my "home" book is too stimulating for before-bed reading. It has lots of ideas in it and it gets my brain going, and I can't fall asleep. So I've turned to an old favorite, Straight Man by Richard Russo.

Although the main character is a straight man, the title refers to comedy, not sexuality. And the book is pretty funny. It chronicles an unusual week in the life of Hank Devereaux, an English professor at a state school in Western Pennsylvania, and a man to whom, by his own admission, things seldom happen. They sure do this week, though. Hank is the interim chair of the most divided group of people you could imagine (one of them injures his nose in a committee meeting: having had it with his sarcastic comments, she smacks him in the face with a spiral notebook that had a loose wire. On the way home, another practically runs him off the road, just to make him get out of the car so he could take a picture.) He also has some issues in his personal life: his youngest daughter's marriage is on the rocks, and his father (a distinguished academic who walked out of his life when he was 10) is coming home to stay with his mother.

I've read all of Richard Russo's books and find him to be a somewhat uneven writer. Mohawk and The Risk Pool were not terribly good, nor was his book of short stories. Nobody's Fool and Empire Falls, by contrast, were TERRIBLY good, so good that you carried the mood of them around for days. I put off reading Straight Man for a long time, because I suspected it would be one of the bad ones. I was very pleasantly surprised.

The characters are delectable. He has a young colleague nicknamed Orshee because he's so opposed to sexism that whenever anyone uses the male pronoun generically, he pipes up with "or she". Another colleague is an alcoholic who is struggling to put his ten kids through college, and often calls up, drunk, to berate him in tirades that always start "You Judas Peckerwood..." A workshop student named Leo writes very bad, very violent and misogynistic short stories and can't be dissuaded from his belief that he's the next Hemingway. There's his mother's landlord and would-be suitor, Mr. Purty, who collects and sells junk and is given to malapropisms. There's the cynical CEO of the college, and the chief of security, who's just dying for the opportunity to call in the National Guard to quell a student rebellion.

But above it all, there's Hank. Hank is in the throes of some pretty serious stuff: aside from all the family and work stuff, there's an internal crisis there. Once, he published a novel. He hasn't written anything since, and is facing the question of who he is and what his life will ultimately mean. He's getting old and time's ticking. These issues, and the humor with which he approaches them, are what makes the book engaging, and makes it stay with you after you're done. This is one I don't get tired of.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Trust No One: The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips

The device of the untrustworthy narrator is an intriguing one. Among other things, it forces the narrator to become more of an active character in his or her own story. Anybody actively involved in interpreting history can tell you that it's a very similar experience to reading a book with an untrustworthy narrator. You have two written accounts of what is apparently the same event, one in a letter and one in a diary. Yet, the letter has the event occuring in 1868, and the diary has the event occuring in 1869. Why? Assuming subsequent diary entries are of no help, who's right? Are there, in fact, two separate events, or one?

In The Egyptologist, Arthur Phillips uses this device to great effect. To begin with, there are not one but two untrustworthy narrators: Ralph Trilipush, the Egyptologist to whom the title refers, and Harold Ferrell, retired and ailing private detective. Both tell their stories through letters. Ralph's letters were written in 1922 (as Howard Carter excavates King Tutankhamun's tomb) to his fiancee, Margaret Finneran. Harold's letters are written in the present, to an heir of Margaret's who has tracked him down in the course of a genealogical project.

Neither writer reveals their untrustworthiness until the story unfolds and you have already won their trust. The story is a tangled one that ranges over four continents and several decades. Briefly put, Trilipush is in Egypt, attempting to locate and excavate the tomb of Atum-Hadu, the last pharoah before the Hyksos invaded Egypt, a plan he has been trying to bring to fruition for four years. On the surface, things sound quite rosy: not only is he in the process of making his professional dream come true, but he is engaged to a beautiful, lively, wealthy woman. He is under a great deal of pressure, though: his colleagues have nothing but scorn for him, his position at Harvard is precariuous, and his fiancee's father is financing his dig and is expecting a tremendous return on his investment.

In walks Ferrell. Ferrell is engaged in investigating possible heirs to a brewer's fortune. Trilipush becomes a subject of this investigation when it becomes clear that he was likely the last person to see Ferrell's quarry, a man named Paul Caldwell. Ferrell tracks Trilipush to Harvard and Boston, where of course, he is not. After an interview with Margaret Finneran and her father, he is engaged to further investigate Trilipush and see what he can dig up.

I have to confess that I saw some of the final plot twists coming, although not all of them. The ride is worth it, however, and leaves the reader with certain lingering questions about where the truth lies, perhaps a strange feeling for the non-historian, but a familiar one with those who do historical research on any kind of regular basis.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The End Is Nigh!

The End of Harry Potter, that is. And theories abound as to what Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will contain, and how JK Rowling will end the series. Hell, in my own family, there's even debate over whether the title contains an adjective or just a proper noun (I say proper noun, that the Deathly Hallows is a place, just like the Whomping Willow or Shrieking Shack. My sister thinks it's an adjective and says that titles aren't supposed to have them. I don't know why.)

Someone has even collected all of his theories and written a book. Damn, I wish I'd thought of that idea. I'd be out drinking now and sleeping in tomorrow if so. This guy's a famous writer, though, so perhaps he had a leg up. His name is David Langford, and his book is called The End of Harry Potter?. If you want to read a real review of it, I recommend GrrlScientist's. Anything she writes is usually pretty good, but since she's read the book and I haven't, it's definitely best to check with her here.

As I said in her comments, I'm a bit conflicted over whether or not to buy it. I looked at it tonight and I really, really want to read it. But I know that once I read it, I won't want it anymore. Once the 7th book comes out, I REALLY won't want it anymore.

Nah, I'm just using the existence of the book as a jumping-off point here. I'm simultaneously pleased and disappointed to see confirmation of my theory as to where one of the remaining Horcruxes is located. I kind of wanted to be the only one who'd noticed, but I'm kind of glad to see that it wasn't an out-there theory. (If you don't know where it is, I will give you a general hint. Look in Book 5. Re-read the beginning. If you haven't found it by the time school starts, you've missed it.)

Snape is the real wild card going into HP7. As Langford points out, his actions at the end of HP6 don't make much logical sense, no matter where you think his loyalties lie. It's also hard to believe any of the possibilities for Dumbledore's fate: that he's really dead but engineered it himself; that he's really dead as a result of getting caught in the trap; that he's not really dead after all.

In a few more weeks, the country will grind to a virtual stand-still as everyone calls in sick to work to stay home and read their copies of HP7, and the greatest publishing phenomenon most of us will ever witness will come to an end, and we'll know the answers to all of our questions. Until then...

Friday, May 4, 2007

It was a beautiful fall day

The sun was shining, and I settled in with my classmates for my first class with a legend of my graduate school. My graduate school is about 40 years old, and this professor had been there for nearly 30. His style was to have everyone pick a different book each week and report on it, so we'd learn from one another. His comprehensive lists of excellent books were legendary. The way some alums talked about them, it sounded like they were practically planning to get them bronzed. He only kept us for a few minutes that day, but before we left, he confided to us his desire to read every book ever written. "I keep trying," he said, "but the bastards keep gaining on me."

Two days after that, we were all at a barbeque when one of the other professors gathered us all together. She had some terrible news for us. The legendary professor had been killed in a car crash that afternoon.

Sometimes I wonder, did he waste much time on crappy books? Did he push through books he knew he wouldn't enjoy, just to get to the end? I'll never know. But in his memory, I have decided, to my great surprise, to set aside Last of the Southern Girls by Willie Morris, only 20 pages in. It's a weird book -- it doesn't sound like him. I think maybe he's at his best when he's drawing more on his own life, like in My Dog Skip or Taps. I know he had a successful career as an editor before he wrote either of those books, and I'm sure he's had experience around the Beltway, with women like Carol Hollywell, but he's failed to suck me in. I will continue to love him for the two books listed above and for My Cat Spit McGee, but I think I'll have to forego this one, in the recognition that no one's perfect, life is short, and better books await.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Wish You Were Here, as promised

Despite not being Notes on a Scandal, this book had several things that attracted me to it. First, it shares a title with one of my favorite Pink Floyd songs. Second, it's by Stewart O'Nan, who wrote The Circus Fire, which I liked more than was decent for a book about one of the worst civic disasters in the country's history. Third, it is set near where I grew up, in Chatauqua. Sounds like a winner to me.

The book made me terribly sad. I do try to be careful about spoiling the endings of books I write about here, but I will go out on a limb here and let everyone know in advance that the dog survives the entire book, even though he's old, and even though he ominously gets left alone several times. Don't worry. He's not a metaphor for aging and loss. He is just a dog.

The sadness centers around the rest of the family. This family, the Maxwells, have been coming to a cottage on Lake Chatauqua in the southwest corner of New York State, for decades. With the death of the father, Henry, the mother (Emily) decides to sell the cottage, but brings everyone back there for one last week. "Everyone" consists of her sister-in-law, Arlene; her daughter Meg; Meg's two children, Sarah (about 13) and Justin (about 9); her son Ken; Ken's wife Lisa and their children Ella and Sam (roughly the same age as Meg's children).

During the week, we see the complex family bonds sometimes shift subtly, and at other times get more firmly knitted into place. Ken has a separate persona for his sister, his wife, and his mother, and he never really resolves this during the week. In fact, the reader can tell that he'll continue to struggle with it until the death of at least one, if not two, of the principals. In contrast, Meg has always had a tumultous relationship with her mother, but it appears as though they are finally starting to reconcile.

The week at the cottage represents the end of a phase in their lives. For Meg and Ken, it's a realization that they really are all grown up, their dad is gone, and that their allegiances must now lie with the families they've made, not the family they grew up with. For the older generation of Emily and Arlene, it's the end of their lives itself that is staring them in the face. They've seen the area change and lose its quaint feel, they've watched their friends get old and die, they know that the new owner of the cottage may knock it down altogether.

This sense of loss throws the rest of their lives into sharp relief. Ken is a struggling photographer who works in a development lab for $8.50 an hour. Meg is a recovering alcoholic, freshly divorced, struggling financially, faced with the horrifying prospect of starting it all over. Both take long, hard looks at their lives during the week, and both come up wanting. The hopefulness is in Emily and Arlene, whose choices have been made, and who are relatively content with the way their lives have gone, even Arlene, who never married or had children.

This book could've been horribly sappy, but Stewart O'Nan has managed to avoid this trap and get to the real emotions underneath. I would imagine that most people would be able to find someone to relate to in this book. I enjoyed it and was sorry to finish it.

I'm going to visit my boyfriend this weekend, so I'm not sure when I'll start a new one. As always, I will keep you posted!

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

This Week's Library Haul

So this afternoon, I had a wicked headache. The Simpsons reruns people fucked up and reran the same episode they had on Friday, so I quit fighting it, took a couple of aspirin and went down for a nap around 6, to try to sleep it off. I woke up at 9. It's now almost 2 here and I'm not even tired. Which means the same thing will happen tomorrow. So, I'm posting again, this time about my library visit this weekend. Miraculously, the mean librarian didn't bark the closing time at me the minute I walked through the door, snarl at me about my overdue fines, or shut the lights off on me when I was in the stacks.

So this is what I got. I really wanted Notes on a Scandal but they didn't have it. I will have to special-order. But I did wind up with:

The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips (mostly because I wish I was one!)
The King in the Tree by Steven Millhauser
The Last of the Souther Girls by Willie Morris
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith (second time's the charm!)
Wish You Were Here by Stewart O'Nan

The last one is the one I started with. So far, it's pretty good. I got it because I liked his book The Circus Fire, and because it was set in Chatauqua, near where I grew up.

We'll see how I do with these. Last time, I got through all but two. I started Loon Lake by E.L Doctorow shortly before it was due, and it didn't move me enough to pay the fines on. I quit Salad Days when I realized it wasn't about the Douglas Fairbanks I was thinking of (I wanted to know about the silent-screen star who married Mary Pickford and built Pickfair; this was about his son). So four out of six isn't bad. Look for something on Stewart O'Nan's book later this week.