Monday, October 29, 2007

Get out the tissues, and read this book

I've had a great run with books lately, as I recently bragged. But one of the best I've read is The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty.

My parents have a habit of leaving the same magazine in the bathroom for weeks or months at a time. being the compulsive reader that I am, I essentially had Stephen King's screed about this book and the publishing industry from Entertainment Magazine memorized at one point. King was mad because while he thought the book was truly excellent, it had no chance of seeing the light of day because it didn't contain any Prada shoes or Russian subs or serial killers.

Reading the book, I can see why King liked it so much. After that incident with Gerald's Game where I didn't sleep for about six weeks after reading it, I stay away from most of his work, just for my own mental health. I've enjoyed some of his non-scary stuff in the past, though, and this book reminds me a lot of some of that. It's set in New England, and everyone in it drinks regional beer and likes the Red Sox (hmmm, maybe it is a horror novel after all!!!!!).

It's very sad, just to warn you. If you've experienced any losses in your own life, you might want to wait on this one. The book opens with Smithy, a middle-aged overweight self-proclaimed loser, cleaning up the cottage after a fishing trip with his parents. They went back a day early while he dealt with returning the boat and cleaning and all. On the way home, they were in a car crash and both died hours apart. After the funeral, Smithy's parents receive a letter from a morgue in Los Angeles stating that they have the body of Smithy's only remaining family member, his older sister, Bethany. In shock, Smithy goes out to the garage and does a surprising thing. He gets on his old bicycle, and rides and rides and rides, out to L.A. to get his sister.

The novel is two stories in one: the story of Smithy's ride across the country, the people he meets, and his journey back to some semblance of himself, and of a life; and the story of Smithy's childhood and how his sister Bethany wound up in a morgue after having disappeared from their hometown nearly 20 years earlier. It's hard to put into words why I liked this one so much, except maybe that it seemed like real life, and it really made you feel. I'm pleased that this one saw the light of day, and I urge you all to take advantage.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Peek into the Life

Observant readers of this blog may have noticed the name of A. Manette Ansay on my sidebar, on my list of authors I love. I own two of her novels. River Angel was purchased during a down period in my life, when a melange of work and love-related issues had me wandering the aisles of Barnes and Noble in search of something to cling to. The book had a lovely phrase on the cover, something about souls rising like dandelion seeds, so I bought it and took it home in the hopes that it'd make me feel better for a couple of days. It did. I also bought Vinegar Hill, which was her first novel, and read Sister once. All three books were very sad, although River Angel does end on a positive note, at least. They were moving and well-written, though. I was surprised when I saw her name in the non-fiction section, so I took that book, Limbo, home with me.

When I took my creative writing classes in college, the professors would always encourage us to write about what we know. It's amazing how well many novelists do that, once you learn a little bit about their lives. Barbara Kingsolver, for example, grew up in rural Kentucky, moved to the Southwest as an adult, and was pursuing a career in biology before she became a successful novelist. A. Manette Ansay's family briefly lived with her father's parents who loathed each other the same way the grandparents in Vinegar Hill did, and the grandfather was always threatening to tell everyone about the grandmother (he never did, and apparently took whatever her secret was to the grave with him.)

But that's not all I learned about Ansay in her memoir. I was surprised to learn that she has lived with a mysterious disability for over 15 years. She had been a promising pianist, but one day her muscles just refused to work. She had trouble performing even simple tasks, let alone playing the piano. She had to drop out and move back home. She went everywhere, tried everything. She saw every sort of medical professional known to man. They all had theories, but nothing helped. To this day, she doesn't have a definitive diagnosis, and she needs a wheelchair to get around.

Now, a book like this could've gone in a couple of different directions. It could've been a poor-me tale, or it could've been a heroic tale about how Mansay triumphed over adversity to become a successful writer. She doesn't tell it like that. She talks about it simply as part of her life story, a simple "this is what life is like for me". She talks about the crap she had to endure from complete strangers and the bizarre comments they'd make. Some make inane jokes ("Hey, don't go too fast in that thing or I'll have to give you a ticket!!!"), some make cruel jokes (she also said that guys loved to yell improper suggestions out of car windows, then laugh and drive away). Some ask her personal questions, as if she has a duty to explain to anyone who sees her why she's in a chair. Some express something akin to jealousy, implying how nice it must be to just ride everywhere. Some try to convert her. Some who had been her friends cut her off, blaming her affliction on herself. Others get all sanctimonious and tell her how she must've learned a great deal from her experience (she snapped at one such individual that maybe something terrible would happen to her one day, and she'd get to learn from it too).

But she's just trying to live her life, and it had been and continued to be a good one. Take away the parts with the illness and it'd be a quintessential American childhood: she grew up in the Midwest, with one brother, and was raised by loving parents. She went to church, got good grades, excelled at the piano, and as she got older, found out how far these qualities could take her. There's a lot of sweet, funny stuff in the book, as well as some of the darker fears and misunderstandings of childhood. You see her going from being a daughter to getting to understand her parents as human beings. You see her fall in love and get married, journey away from the rigid, judgemental faith of her childhood to a different understanding of spirituality, pursue one path and then change it. Without the illness, it's really like anyone's life. Which, I think, is part of the point she was trying to make. Her mystery illness was a terrible thing, and it was a thing that's shaped her life, but it doesn't define her.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The New Barnes and Noble; the old Rust Belt Books

In the past two weeks, I visited two bookstores that were new to me. The first, Rust Belt Books, is within walking distance of my new apartment (yes it is, I proved that on my day off, although I didn't walk there when I visited it, because it was night and it's not THAT safe over here). The second was a new Barnes and Noble. I'll start there.

I remember when Barnes and Noble first came to the area. It had supplanted my family's favorite store in the world, The Village Green. Some lottery winners choose to travel the world. Others pay off their debts or buy fancy cars. I think if anyone in my family had hit the lottery, we would've gone straight to Village Green and bought everything that even mildly interested us. One day we went there and it was called Barnes and Noble instead. I was impressed with the classy atmosphere but surprised at how dark it seemed inside compared to the airy Village Green. They opened up the Barnes and Noble closer to my ancestral home later that year. Surprisingly, they've never upgraded it one bit since then, and I don't think I was even in high school when it opened. It didn't have a music section or a coffee shop or any of the stuff the newer ones have. They built a whole new one across the street with all that stuff. It opened on Tuesday and we went to the party.

I especially wanted to go since the Buffalo Public Schools received a portion of the evening's proceeds. I purchased three books, only one of which was for myself, and spent a good hour wandering around. I'd been looking forward to the evening and was disappointed to find (although I really shouldn't have been) that there wasn't anything to see. It was exactly the same inside as the one I used to frequent in my former town, and while I got a good feeling from supporting education and starting my Christmas shopping, it didn't get me excited or stimulate my mind.

Rust Belt Books did, however. I drove over there with the idea of just exploring my new surroundings a bit. They happen to have a parking lot adjacent, so I parked there and went inside. They had tons and tons of used books, interesting-looking ones that I'd never heard of before, some old favorites so good that I wondered why anyone would sell them, bizarre sci-fi from the 60s, blatant propaganda pieces from other eras. There was a mini-music festival in a back room, funny liberalist bumper stickers by the register, a cat, a chick sleeping in the front window. The woman working spent as much time outside talking to the derelicts as she did talking to the customers inside. You could tell she was the type of person who'd probably give them whatever food was left from the music festival, without judgement, just because she knew they'd be hungry.

Yet sadly, I didn't spend any money there. I don't know why. I saw stuff I wanted. I think I was afraid that they didn't take debit cards. But in re-reading all of this, it got my mind going much more than the slick new Barnes and Noble. It made me want to drain my bank account and fill my brain. I walked by there the other day and noticed their Halloween window display juxtaposed books like Frankenstein and Earth in the Balance. Clearly, they didn't just hang whatever Corporate sent them out there.

Several years ago, my friend's parents closed their antique store. He told me about working during the closing sale and getting snotty with a woman who remarked how sad she was that the place was closing since she loved to come in and browse. He snapped back that they were closing because of too many browsers and not enough customers. Since I'd hate for Rust Belt Books to meet a similar fate, ever, and since I can control no one's behvaior but my own, I vow to my blog readers, to go back there within a week, with cash, and buy something. I'll let you know what I get. If any of you reading this can, you should visit your local indie too, before it disappears.

I'm back, baby!

And it feels so good. I could tell you the long boring tale of how Time Warner couldn't hook me up for nearly three weeks, how when they finally did, I found myself without a place to put my computer, then couldn't get it to work, until by sheer grit and determination, like the pioneers of yore exhibited while they settled the west, I was back online. But that's just boring, and I have a few better things to talk about.

I've had a pretty good booklife recently. I attended the opening of a new Barnes and Noble, visited an independent bookstore right in my own neighborhood (one of two left in the city, that I'm aware of) and read three good books right in a row, bam bam BAM!!! This will merit many posts, though, not just the one, so look for much more of me in the near, perhaps even immediate, future!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Bursting with Pride!

In my younger days, I used to want to be a writer. Or, scratch that. I was a writer. I kept a daily diary. I had a notebook by my bed. I wrote poems and short stories, even experimented with a few things that kind of fell in between the two. I intended to write a novel one day. I wrote all the time: when I was angry, when I was sad, to entertain myself when I was bored. I wrote for my major in college. I wrote during the summer, after my mind-numbing retail job or even during downtime at work. I wrote on car trips. I wrote when I came home from the bar.

Then I stopped. I don't really know what happened. I got a job after college and the inspiration just left me. I fell in love, and wrote again for a little while after he broke my heart, but then I fell in love again, and went to grad school, and didn't write much at all, unless it was for school or money. Then, I made an internet friend. An amazing woman with an amazing blog that I read every day, even when I didn't understand it (it's about science). I envied her creative outlet and her chance to connect with others who had similar interests. I wished I had something worth saying, and someone who would want to listen.

Then, driving back from the library one night, it occurred to me that maybe I did. I emailed my friend Hedwig about my idea for advice, and she gave me a lot of helpful tips. Then I was online, and have been ever since January. I've enjoyed hearing from others who like my blog, but even when no one comments, I still enjoy the experience. It's made me a better reader, and I like to think, a better person. So imagine how honored and pleased I was to pay a visit to the site of my friend and inspiration tonight, and see that I am one of her picks for her Intellectual Blogger award! This award is designed to promote good blogging on the web. Hedwig, or Grrlscientist as she's known to The Blogosphere, certainly falls into this category. I'm pleased that she considers me to be of the same caliber! I will try hard to be worthy of it!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Coming to you live, between dinner and the board meeting

I know I said probably no more posts until next week, but in the interest of getting the book returned, and killing time before the board meeting, I bring you a report on Isn't It Romantic? by Ron Hansen.

Ron Hansen was another writer featured in my Western fiction collection. He was the author of "True Romance," an intriguing but difficult-to-understand story. He piqued my interest enough to check out some of his other work (although I admit, I actually thought he was the author of "Good Rockin' Tonight," the Elvis story). So I got Isn't It Romantic? An Entertainment.

What to say about this one? This is the story of a young French woman (Natalie) who takes a road trip across America on a bus tour to escape her bastard fiance (Pierre). The bastard follows her in an attempt to win her back. Both wind up stranded in a small town in Nebraska, and get taken in by the townspeople, but separately. Each falls in and out of love with other people -- Pierre with the young waitress Iona, who has long nursed a crush on Dick, and Natalie with the much-older Dick. Natalie and Iona are age peers and room at the same house. Pierre is staying with a mechanic and aspiring vintner trying to market his fine Nebraska wines.

In the course of this very-short book, there is much confusion, intrigue, and mixups before order is restored and the right people ultimately paired up. It's like a farce. There are many books out there that have been turned into terrible movies and TV shows, many plays stretched thin into television serials or diluted in transfer to the silver screen, but this is virtually the only book I've ever read that I thought would do better as a movie or a play. There's a scene with memos getting swapped back and forth and stolen and fallen into the wrong hands that was right out of something like Noises Off and would've been absolutely hilarious acted out. I felt the whole book fell flat, though. It's not really Hansen's fault. I guess that's why they're called experiments, and I wouldn't count him out. But after this book, now we know: the farce does not translate terribly well to novel format.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

It's not that I'm not reading...

Certainly not that. My conspicuous absence from this blog can be explained by my lack of internet. After a whole drama with the cable company, I will finally be getting hooked up next week. I will have a lot to write about -- I've been reading a lot (little else to do in my own place all by myself), and some good ones too, that I look forward to sharing with you. I'll try to get off another post, at least, before then. See you soon.

On Chick Lit and Girl Cooks

I know I keep coming back to Citizen Girl as an example of chick lit at its worst, so much so that many of you may be wondering why I can't just get over what a bad book it was (clearly, you've never read it if you have!) But it loomed large in my imagination as I dived into Girl Cook by Hannah McCouch. For this is the book that the wretched Citizen Girl should've been.

The book interested me because I've really enjoyed the past two seasons of "Top Chef" on Bravo. It just impresses the hell out of me, how the contestants are given a few ingredients, some loose parameters and a couple of hours and always pull off something amazing (well, except for the time on season 2 when Sam tried to scramble eggs on a grill and they fell in the sand). So I picked it up when I noticed it at the library and fell in love with the heroine.

Layla Mitchner is a tough, intense Cordon Bleu grad coping with the rampant sexism in the world of food. She is starting from the bottom in the garde manger, creating salads and scooping ice cream. Her immediate career goal is to make it to the sauté station, where sous chefs are made, but her boss will never promote her, tolerating a bullying, thieving coke fiend in the position instead. The sexism and misogyny are much better done and more subtle than what G encountered throughout her meandering journey (although I could've done without the scene where the coked-up sauté guy sticks his dick in Layla's face). For one thing, it is actually aimed at Layla, whereas G was basically walking around looking for stuff to be offended by. For another, Layla's response is much more admirable. G got pissy and whiny; Layla fought back. She sticks it out at her miserable job as long as she can humanly stand it, giving it her all the entire time, and makes an exit that's both professional and worthy of remembrance.

She applies similar gutsiness to her love life. Since you can't have a chick lit book without a romance, Layla courts two men during the course of the book. One is rich and preppy, but nice, and the other is a bohemian grungy jackass. But in both situations, she is mistress of her own destiny. When the jackass invites her to a ski weekend in Vermont, she's determined to not only pay her own way, but to bring it on the slopes. When she gets set up with the preppy guy, she doesn't hesitate to cut out when she starts to find him dull. She speaks three languages and has fully grown up from being a wealthy playgirl to an independent woman when her father cut her off. It doesn't take you long to get firmly on Layla's side, so when she succeeds, you're not only pleased, but you're not even surprised, and not only because the book is following the formula.

Make no mistake. This is not really one to put on the shelf with your James Joyce and Shakespeare, it's really not. It's chick lit with all of its classic elements: the Gay Friend, the Drama Queen Mom, the Prince Charming, the Over-the-Top Fairy Tale Ending. But it is a quality book, as well as being a fun read, which is often difficult to find in chick lit. To all chicks looking for an escape from the slings and arrows of life, I recommend Girl Cook as your next hideout.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

My faith in fiction, restored, by Mark Jude Poirier

It used to be that every book was like a fabulous vacation, the kind that offered not only new scenery but new perspectives, new ways of thinking of things. Yet lately, most of the books I've been reading have been less like trips to the Alps and more like the camping trips where it rained all the time. You dragged your soggy, sand-logged butt home after a few days having gained nothing except a deeper appreciation for the miracles of dry socks and sand-free blankets, and trying not to think about the things you lost, whether it was a couple of hundred dollars or the opportunity to do something better.

I almost thought there were no more trips left. I thought maybe I couldn't be moved by literature anymore, that I'd turned into the exact kind of boring adult that I swore I never would. And worse, I was almost ready to embrace my fate, on the verge of tearing up my library card and redoubling my efforts to take a sincere interest in mortgage-refinance and window treatments. But then, something wonderful happened. I picked up Goats by Mark Jude Poirier. I started it Friday night and stayed up with it later than I should have. I spent as much time with it as I could yesterday, thinking about it constantly when I wasn't reading, and I finished it this morning. I'm back, baby!

Poirier was one of the authors from my western fiction collection from a couple of months back. In my earlier post, I said that I was a little unsure as to why his story was selected, as it didn't strike me as being terribly tied to the west, but that I loved it nonetheless. So on my next trip, I hunted up books by some of my favorites from that anthology, and they had Goats.

This book, as it features a 14-year-old protagonist, is destined to be pegged as a coming-of-age tale. Poirier makes it hard to be that simplistic though: at 14, Ellis already has adult bad habits and adult responsibilities. His biological father, Fucker Frank, is long gone. He lives with his mother, Wendy, who is blessed with a wealthy stepfather and cursed with serious emotional problems that have made it impossible for her to hold on to a job (although we don't get the sense she tried) or a relationship. Ellis spent most of his time with Goat Man, who lives in their pool house, takes care of the grounds and raises goats and weed. He's been smoking Goat Man's weed since he was 11 and taking care of Wendy's bills even longer.

So, does Ellis "come of age" in this story? I would argue that he simply makes some choices about where his life is headed. It could've happened to Ellis at 30, or it could have never happened at all. Ellis starts to question the basic assumption that resides in Fucker Frank's moniker. He also makes a break from the unconventional homestead, to attend a prep school in the east (Wendy and Goat Man live near Tuscon). He excels at school, befriends his dorky roommate, joins crew, and develops a crush on a server. The story continues on the home front, too: Wendy falls in love with weaselly Bennett, and moves him in to her house, who disturbs the peaceful micro-world of the house. Goat Man senses a change deep inside himself, and begins swimming laps and shaves off his long hair.

The two tales come together during Ellis's breaks from school, first his Christmas break, then his spring break. During his spring break, he and Goat Man make a trek to Mexico together and discover that they've changed and have to learn to relate to one another differently.

I highly recommend this one, and judging by his Amazon sales, so do many others: all of his titles are nearly out of stock and well-reviewed.

Friday, October 5, 2007


In between all of my other activities (most of them less pleasureable), I've been reading Vicki Constance Croke's The Lady and the Panda, the incredible tale of larger-than-life Ruth Harkness, the first Westerner to capture a panda alive!

Harkness's tale makes an amazing arc, and proves my theory that among us, some people just have a destiny. She was born in 1900 and was a flapper, dress designer and all-around and wild woman. She met her husband, an adventurer and all-around wild man, in New York City. He was the one who was attempting to capture a panda, an animal so obscure at the time that Ruth originally thought they were mispronouncing the word "panther". Sadly, he died in China in his quest. Ruth made a bold decision: rather than live frugally on the money he had left (a fairly substantial sum, but not enough to support her in the style in which she was accustomed), she would travel to China and fulfill his quest.

Amazingly, and against all odds, she did. In the process, she took an epic journey to parts of China that even most Chinese did not venture to. She fell in love again, she made friends and enemies, she became the toast of several cities worldwide, she gained a deep understanding of an alien culture, she got to see sights unseen by Western eyes and most Chinese eyes. In the process, it both changes her, and makes her more herself. Her story is gripping, and the lesson she draws from her final journey, and the decision she makes as a result, actually brought tears to my eyes.

It took me quite a while to read this one, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it. I did! Vicki Constance Croke is an excellent writer, and makes much out of an already-lively tale. The book helped me gain a greater understanding of the current predicament of the pandas, too. Their species has such a specific niche that they'd be very vulnerable. I think I'd heard this before, but reading the descriptions of Harkness trying to reach that particular, remote corner of China really brought it home. This book is a must-read for anyone who's interested in pandas, China, animal collection, or spiritual journeys. I am going to try to get Constance-Croke's other book, The Ark, about the history of the zoo. If this is any indication, it should be a good read.