Thursday, February 28, 2008

Booking Through Thursday

The question before the panel this week:

Heroine February 28, 2008
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 1:32 am

Who is your favorite female lead character? And why? (And yes, of course, you can name more than one . . . I always have trouble narrowing down these things to one name, why should I force you to?)

For years, I have loved Eilonwy from Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles. You can say what you want about the plotline of the chronicles itself. Fans will find it classic and admire the way it draws on influences from Anglo-Saxon legend to Tolkien. Detractors will find it derivative and they may try to claim there's nothing new there, but they'll overlook the character of Eilonwy.

We first meet Eilonwy when she drops her "bauble" into the dungeon where the hero, Taran, is being held (her bauble is a spherical, glowing object that turns out to be quite important. I heard that word for the first time in these books, and it's always had that sort of magic connotation to me.) Eilonwy, it turns out, is the niece of the evil queen who is holding Taran, but decides to help him rather than remain loyal to her aunt and the rest of the creeps. She is very brave, very funny, very clever and very strong. Throughout the series, she seeks out adventure and years for opportunities to prove herself.

It's to Alexander's credit that he makes her an actual asset to Taran and the rest of the men. One very common criticism of Tolkien's books is the lack of depth of his female characters. Eilonwy is never a mere ornament. Her value is recognized by all, from Taran's father-figure enchanter Dallben to the Crown Prince Gwydion himself. Taran's occasional stupid remark about her being "just a girl" is never tolerated by the other men, and even when there's no one around to correct him, the stupidity of it is usually evidenced by subsequent events.

After saying all that, I will add that I've always been angered by the ending of the series. Eilonwy has to make a terrible choice, one that faces many women in real life (although generally in a less dramatic fashion). She has to choose between a man and her identity. I bet you can guess which she picked. Her destiny felt inevitable -- you knew that the two characters were destined to be together from the moment her bauble dropped into his cell -- but still. It would've been better if she'd found a way to use her considerable skills and ingenuity to compromise, or to avoid the choice altogether. It doesn't change my love for the character, though.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Visit my new "Other Blog"

Some of you may have noticed a link to the Young Museum Professionals blog on my sidebar. I'm pleased to announce that I'm now a contributor to it! I hope to have my first post there up soon, so check it early and often!

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Well, I'm fresh from a trip to Barnes and Noble with my $50 gift card. I came home with one book and my relationship intact, which was more than it looked like at the time. Confession time: those things paralyze me, as much as I love getting them. I can't help but look upon them as a rare and special gift that I must spend carefully, as it's unlikely I'll ever get another chance to do so.

So I over-analyze. I've been meaning to pick up a better copy of The Secret History by Donna Tartt, but since I already have a copy, I shouldn't waste this rare and special gift on it. I want to read Bright Lights, Big Ass by Jennifer Lancaster, but will I still be glad I bought this book 30 years from now? Probably not, so I shouldn't waste this rare and precious gift on that, either. I want to read Killing Yourself to Live and The Best American Short stories of 2007, but not necessarily own them (after all, they may suck, who knows) so I can't waste this rare and precious gift on either of those. By this point, I'm starting to hate myself, but this has gotten rolling and I can't stop it, until nothing in the store is good enough and worthy enough of my gift card and my boyfriend has moved past enjoying shopping himself, right through patient, past eager to get the hell out of there, into wondering if that 50-year-old toothless lady who tried to pick him up last week is doing anything tonight.

So, after much prevaricating, I wound up with a book I'd never even heard of before today. It's called Charity Girl, and it's about a young woman who gets locked up during WWI for having VD. For some reason, this historical novel struck me as the one I'd enjoy owning the most out of everything I looked at today. It was also the one I had in my hand at the point where I couldn't deal with it anymore. I enjoy looking, but sometimes it stresses me out.

So here's a list of some other interesting things I saw (but didn't buy) today:

Helen of Troy, Margaret George. The title pretty much says it all. I liked Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles and The Autobiography of Henry VIII but couldn't get into her Cleopatra and Mary Magdalene novels, so I didn't get Helen of Troy.

Bridge of Sighs, Richard Russo. Probably very good, but still in hardback.

Slash by Slash. Yeah, that Slash. It's gotta be good, but is also still in hardback.

Killing Yourself to Live, Chuck Klosterman. I liked Fargo Rock City and this one, about death and music, is probably good too. I never went back to Fargo Rock City, though, and I know the library has this one.

People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn. I'm interested in it but not sure if I'd ever actually read it. I'm in the market for something that's fun and stimulating, not just intellectual.

Like the professor at my graduate school who died, it's always made me sad that there are so many good books in the world, and so little time -- and money -- for all of them.

Friday, February 22, 2008


If you decide to read Russell Banks' Trailerpark (and I suggest you do), you should know that you can't approach it like any collection of short stories. there are two general types of short story collection: those that contain stories which are totally unrelated to one another, and those with a theme or common thread. Generally, though, even the stories in the "common thread" variety can be read and understood independently of one another. Jennifer Weiner's The Guy Not Taken, for example, contains three stories about a family over a ten-year period. But you could start with any of them, or skip the middle one, or only read the first and have it make sense.

Trailerpark is not like that. The first story, "The Guinea Pig Lady", is crucial to the rest. Pay attention to the details, and don't quibble about the misrepresentation in calling an 80-page story "short". This story introduces all of the characters in the rest of the book, most of whom get their chance to stand in the spotlight, and in some cases, you won't get their backstory again.

You may guess from the tone of this post that I didn't do that. I'd intended to curl up with this one before bed and was not pleased to see that I'd barely make a dent in it. I'm also the type of reader who likes to get what she came for. I still haven't forgiven Toni Morrison for writing a book called "Jazz" which had nothing to do with jazz, so I was kind of skimming the parts that weren't about the Guinea Pig Lady. It took me most of the rest of the book to realize that wasn't the point of this story, which was rather meandering and thin compared to the rest of them.

The stories don't merely radiate out from the first. They move back and forth in time, so that you meet the retired Captain when he was a little boy doing his first bit of driving off the farm in his dad's Model A Ford on his 14th birthday. You learn how broken-down Claudel Bing once regarded himself as one of life's winners and see him on the upswing. A hippie drug dealer gets murdered by his supplier early in the book, yet you see him, ghostlike, reappear in happier days throughout the other short stories.

Banks could've taken this collection about the denizens of a New Hampshire trailer park in two obvious directions. He could have made it a funny book, filled it with "colorful characters" and taken it totally over the top, Northern Exposure-style. Or, he could've made it gritty and full of misery, adultery, drug addiction, alcoholism and poverty. To his credit, he strikes a balance. His characters are, by and large, not happy people. The book can be summed up by a passage found near the end:

It's true of trailerparks that the people who live there are generally alone at the center of their lives. They are widows and widowers, divorcees and bachelors and retired army officers, a black man in a white society, a black woman there too, a drug dealer, a solitary child of a broken home, a drunk, a homosexual in a heterosexual society -- all of them, man and woman, adult and child, basically alone in the world.

Banks can explain how they got there, what drives them, their fears and desires and demons, but he never passes judgement. Claudel Bing's alcoholism seems a reasonable response to his situation, as does Flora Pease's guinea-pig hoarding. You understand perfectly how the advances of the same man, although equally unwelcome to both, were a positive force in the life of one woman and a destructive force in the life of another. At the end of the book, when everyone's desires, fears and demons assume the focal point of a large sum of money ferreted away in one man's ice hut, it's downright heartbreaking and a little bit darkly comical at the same time. Much like life.

Booking Through Thursday -- Format

The question before the panel:

Format February 21, 2008
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 1:18 am

All other things (like price and storage space) being equal, given a choice in a perfect world, would you rather have paperbacks in your library? Or hardcovers? And why?

I like a mix of both. All of the Harry Potters, for example, should be in hardback. But a book like Motley Crue's ouvre, The Dirt, is great to take to the beach or into the tub, so I'm glad I have that one in softback. I never gave it much thought, and can't really separate the cost issue from whether or not I'd want all hardbacks or soft covers. I tend to think that the ones I want to keep, like the Harry Potter books, should be all hardbacks, but the ones I bought just because Ir eally wanted to read them are good in softback.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Completed: The Curse of the Library Haul

Perhaps what sucks the most about this curse is that the remaining books are now a week overdue, and I'll have to pay for this swill. I knew Wendy Wasserstein by reputation, if not by her work. I knew that she was a respected playwright, I'd remembered reading her article in the New Yorker about trying to conceive a child later in life, and I liked the title of her only novel, The Elements of Style. So I gave it a spin.

I did not stay for the whole ride. Have you ever seen The Housewives of Orange County? This was the written equivalent of that. There was one character (Fran, the "it" pediatrician, who ties all the other characters together) that I could actually stand. The rest of them were vacuous, status-driven materialists, and not very interesting. There were too damn many of them, so I could never keep track of whose intellectual predilections were evidenced by her donations to the ballet, as opposed to donating to cancer; and who was a simple gal who never wanted more out of life than a husband, two darling children and a Tiffany rock the size of her head. Nor could I really give a shit.

Maybe it would've gotten better. The book was supposed to be statement about life among the upper crust after 9/11, and maybe more of that would've come out. The only significant change I noted was that the characters went to Palm Springs instead of abroad for Christmas, but perhaps the characters would've developed. I had totally lost interest, though.

It's sad: I checked out nine books, read or started all of them, and didn't really like any of them that much. Election was probably my favorite, but two weeks later, I can barely remember reading it. I recently bought a couple of books, so I'm taking a brief break from the library, but let's hope I do better next time. Any recommendations?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Done Procrastinating

This marks the longest I've ever gone before blogging about a book I've read. I think a big part of it is the intimidation factor. Sometimes, even just when something's blurbed by someone I respect, I immediately feel as if any opinion I would hold to the contrary is wrong. Who am I to say a character is flat and lifeless when someone like Barbara Kingsolver, whose characters are so real I feel as if I know them, thinks that they're vibrant and full of life?

So naturally, the stakes would be even higher when reading something from the canon like the book in question, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. This book is a classic for a reason. Dorian Gray was featured in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and The Fourth Bear for a good reason, right? Likewise, there must've been a good reason why this book is still read, after 100 years. There must've been a good reason why people were shocked and outraged and made it a best-seller when it came out. You can like this book a great deal. You can hate this book. You're not supposed to NOTHING this book, though, and that's exactly what I did.

I don't think I really need to give much of an outline of the plot of the book. This has become one of those tales that everyone kind of knows, even if they haven't read it, almost the way everyone knows who King Arthur and Huckleberry Finn is, and the way many people have a rudimentary familiarity with Gatsby's green light. Which sucks for me, because I really don't know what else to say about it. And trust me, I've tried. I've let this one marinate for several weeks now. I've asked my sister about it, figuring that a PhD candidate would have some insight (alas, all she had to offer was a dim memory of reading the book at some point in the past).

I didn't dislike the book. There were lots of clever, Oscar Wilde-y lines in it ("My older brother won't die and my younger brothers never seem to do anything but."). The idea itself of one's soul and deeds being written on the face seems so very nineteenth century to me, too, that it had some appeal. I was disappointed in the lack of lurid detail and wonder if, to some extent, my lack of reaction to the book is a product of the age in which I live. I can turn on Top 40 radio and hear song lyrics that describe worse acts than anything Dorian even dreamed of, and in far more detail too.

I'm glad I read it. I'm glad I satisfied my curiosity, and sorry I didn't get any more out of it. As a side note, though, I'd advise you against buying the Barnes and Noble edition of this book, unless you're an idiot. I've always found footnotes annoying, like someone tapping your shoulder during a movie to share their personal observations. The footnotes explained every single reference in the text, even the ones that didn't matter. A character might say: "Dorian, you look like a summer day in Naples!" and the footnote would explain that Naples is a city in Italy, which is not only something everyone knows anyway, but is immaterial to your understanding of the sentence. It really annoyed me.

If anyone has anything insightful to say about thebook, I welcome your comments. Don't be afraid to show me up!

Monday, February 18, 2008

A New Frontier in the War on Terror

You might expect many things from a novel about a teddy bear that is alive and is on trial for terrorism. You might think it'd be funny, satirical and biting (like the book jacket wants you to think). You might think it'd be over-the-top and ultimately unfunny. You might be concerned that it'd be shrill and humorless. And depending on your ideological viewpoint, you might absolutely hate the whole idea and want to call Homeland Security on the author, the bookstore, and anyone who blurbed it.

You probably wouldn't expect it to move you to tears, though. But Winky, by Clifford Chase, actually did make me cry, several times. Because, imagine your life as a teddy bear. You belong to someone, but you are just one of many of that person's things. You're aware of your surroundings, so you know what you're missing by not being human. You have a person that you love deeply, and for a while your love is reciprocated. Then, the person you love forgets about you, but not before a bunch of ugly, even violent, transitional scenes.

If you've seen Toy Story 2, you understand the part about the abandonment. Winky hammers home the part about the lack of freedom. For years, Winky couldn't move, nor did he have any other semi-living toy for company. The plight Winky finds himself in as the novel unfolds is especially poignant, for he was granted a brief period of freedom only to have it snatched away. He searched all his life for love and acceptance, for another like him, and so acute was his longing that simple validation was deeply satisfying.

Does this remind you of anything? Maybe the ugly tales that continue to emerge of innocent, peaceful people who've escaped from totalitarian regimes in the Middle East undergoing indignities from harassment to detention? Or maybe the last part reminds you of what it was like not all that long ago for gay people, and what it continues to be like from gay people in ultraconservative environments? The beauty of this book is that it works as both a literal reading and a metaphor. Even if you put your best English-professor goggles on while reading this book, I dare you to never have the urge to put down the book for a minute to phone your parents and ask whatever became of that stuffed rabbit/bear/cat/whathaveyou that you never used to leave home without.

This book is engaging, absorbing, and an excellent example of a fresh take on a tried-and-true idea. The Velveteen Rabbit is a classic children's book. I also liked one called Behind the Attic Wall about dolls that were alive, and there was apparently a whole genre of doll autobiographies around the turn of the twentieth century. Toy Story and Toy Story 2 were the biggest movies I can think of about living toys, but I'm sure there have been many others. Yet, Clifford Chase took this idea and did something new with it. I give this one a very high recommendation, and am glad I bought it instead of just borrowing it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Missing the Point

Sometimes I do that. In graduate school, we read an excellent book titled Slave in a Box, about the history of Aunt Jemima. I knew the book was about racism, not pancakes, but it gave me such terrible cravings for pancakes that I drove 30 miles to get some, racism and exploitation be damned.

I've been reading a fascinating article in the most recent New Yorker titled "The Postmodern Murder," about a murder case in Poland that was solved when a novel came out featuring a murder with the same M.O. The article talks about the writer/killer Krystian Bala and his philosophical beliefs and literary influences, and it's not supposed to make you want to go out and read all the same books, but it had that effect on me anyway. One of his favorites was Crime and Punishment, and now I want to test it out. Most of the books I got on this most recent, most dismal haul were new. Next time, I'll go with something tried and true. I know that the fact that it's been around for a century doesn't automatically make it a great book (Edith Wharton, anyone?) but it can't suck any worse than Gay Blades, and I'm guessing it won't be completely forgettable, like whatchamacalit and whatsitsface were.


Over the weekend, I started and finished The Second Assistant: A Tale from the Bottom of the Hollywood Ladder by Clare Naylor and Mimi Hare. Central has a "staff picks" section, and I saw it featured there like a brightly colored piece of candy. As I picked it up, I fantasized that I was actually helping someone, that the powers that be would notice someone had checked it out and would promote the girl (oh, and I'm sure it was a girl). But really, I just wanted to read it.

About the book itself, I have little to say. I hated it when it was called Citizen Girl and thought it was all right when it was called The Devil Wears Prada, but still liked it the best when it was called Girl Cook. What makes me wonder is the seeming explosion of these books, and the bumbling female lead they all feature. In all cases, the protagonist is a recent college graduate (Layla of Girl Cook was the oldest and most experienced at the approximate age of 27). The protagonist was special, all right. All her life, people expected great things from her. She was a principled intellectual with big, if undefined, plans (Layla is again the exception -- she was a disinherited debutante who was forced to reinvent herself, but whatever).

Then comes the Big Chill. Stunningly, the White House is not looking for a 24-year-old Chief of Staff whose previous managerial experience consists of secretary of the student government. Similarly, the editors of the New Yorker are also looking for a little more experience when adding to their ranks. These intellectual, principled women find themselves making coffee, answering phones and photocopying shit for bosses who (they seem to feel) are not fit to wipe their asses.

The most depressing thing about this scenario? Except (again) for Layla, they generally suck at it. They're always in hot water at work for things like making half-caff when it was supposed to be decaf or forgetting to give their bosses messages. While most of them have ambition, they don't have the ability to focus it. They're so invested in hating their bosses that they don't bother to look at how their bosses got to be where they are. They all yearn for better jobs where they can use their brains, but generally don't show us how they'd use them if given the opportunity.

The same thing goes for romance. All four heroines (except for the one in Devil, who was still with her college boyfriend) bumble about in their private lives, too. They develop the kinds of crushes that real women outgrow once they hit 9th grade...the kind where they have a random and generic encounter with some dude, then think about him every second of every day and make asses out of themselves whenever they run across the guy in the future. The joyless G didn't get any throughout the course of the entire book, although she did have something going with a man who didn't respect women enough (just like everyone else, according to G). Layla and Elizabeth were both juggling two guys who were clearly assholes, yet lived "happily ever after" with the least offensive one in the final pages of their respective novels.

And that gets at what I find the most insidious aspect of these books: everything works out perfectly, but only through luck. None of the women succeed by actually being talented. Throughout the books, dumb luck and inertia keep them employed. Prince Charming rescues Layla and Elizabeth, magically swooping down to fix their careers as well as their personal lives. Layla fucks up big-time on national television, but rather than firing her, they decide she's funny enough to get her own show. Elizabeth and G both benefit from deus-ex-machina shakeups at their respective jobs. The Devil girl, after being fired, bonds with a successful fellow survivor of the Devil Herself, who pities more than admires her.

The very popularity of these books concerns me. Clearly, they're resonating with huge numbers of women. Without really trying, I've encountered four such books in the last year, and I'm sure there are plenty more. It makes one wonder why. I saw an interesting story about narcissism linked on the Rate Your Students blog today, that was on the CBS website. According to the story, narcissism has skyrocketed in recent years, with children being raised to believe they're special and unique and poised to do great things.

The four women in these novels seem to have bought into it on some levels, but at the same time, are also lacking in poise and self-confidence. They want to succeed and feel they deserve success, but have no idea how to get there or what a successful person looks like. They admire no one. They idealize the men in their lives to the exclusion of any other interests. All any of them are about is work and romance. Friends, hobbies, intellectual pursuits, family: all of that takes a backseat. Yet, they're horrible at both work and romance, and deeply dissatisfied with their lives. They have little ability to affect positive change in them, either. Of the four, Layla was the only one who could stand up for herself and make real changes. Finally, when things work out, it's not because of anything any one of them actually did, but because of what others do to them. I liked Layla the best of the four, but even she was just a pawn of fate.

So what's the message of these books? "You think you're so smart and special, but you're really just like a million other girls. You don't matter in the scheme of things. There's nothing you can do about your life, so just lay back and let it happen, and it'll all resolve itself?" Really? What about going out there and making it happen? Why do guys have to be the be-all and end-all? Why does being an adult mean nothing more to these women than getting a job and a man? It's depressing, what society is doing to young women.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Another Depresing Take on Modern Life

Last Friday, while my sister met with her graduate advisor, I waited in the monastic, Hogwartsesque hub of her campus and read. The meeting took much longer than she expected, so I started and finished Tom Perrotta's Election while I waited.

I mentioned before that I really liked Little Children but didn't much care for Joe College. I was looking for Election to provide the judgement on whether or not I am a Tom Perrotta fan. I'm still not sure.

I'd seen the movie, with Reese Witherspoon, before I was even aware it was a book. Having read the book, I wonder why they made some of the major changes that they did. Basically, this is a book about a history teacher who decides to throw the election for class president. Tracy Flick (Witherspoon) is what "Rate Your Students" would call a "super-keener": all ruthless ambition and perkiness, every teacher's pet, Miss Extra-Curricular, you get it. The history teacher in question (this was a week and a half ago, we're just going to call him "John") is a believer in democracy and American history, popular among the students for his discussion-style classes, but also facing somewhat of a crisis in his marriage at home.

I think this is a book about the thin veneers of most people's lives. Tracy, on the surface, doesn't have any demons, yet something led her to seek out a father figure/lover in John's best friend and now former colleague. Along the same lines, John seems like a happy person, but is miserable with the way his marriage seems to have deteriorated into the quest for a baby. The alternate candidate that John recruits for the presidency seems aimless and accepting, affable and brainless, a likeable guy because he's nice to everyone and does exactly what they want him to, yet he makes a big rebellion within his family dynamic and a small stand in the privacy of the voting booth that turns out to affect the whole election. His sister Tammy, to most people, is probably just a willfully angsty teen, but her angst actually has a very real source that (sadly) probably won't work itself out until she goes to college, if then.

I called this post "Another Depressing Take on Modern Life," mostly thinking of the panicy, trapped misery of Little Children and the amoral landscape inhabited by Joe College. But compared with those two, this one is actually pretty cheerful. It ends on a more hopeful note. While none of the characters can exactly be called happy, they've at least made a start, and learned from the experiences, not in a cheesy, Oprah-like way, but in a real way.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Something? and what kind of stars?

The curse of the most recent library haul has continued. You know, I really thought I'd chosen well, as I was leaving the library that day. A decent number of books, but I'd stopped before I had too many. A mix of some I'd been meaning to get to, and new ones I'd never heard of. An eclectic combination of meaningful fiction and fun, charming flufffy stuff. NOT SO.

I waited a week before posting on Moon Pies and Movie Stars. I finished it during my first night in Pittsburgh. I can say that it was more captivating than Saints and Sinners, and definitely less poorly written than Gay Blades. Other than that, though, I don't have a whole lot to say about it.

The book was pretty derivative. The tale starts in a bowling alley in Texas, owned by the main character (whose name I've forgotten already...we'll call her MC). MC is holding a big party in her bowling alley for all her female friends, to celebrate the wedding of two characters on their favorite soap opera. To MC's shock, however, a face from the past appears on the screen: her adult daughter Violet, who ran off four years ago, leaving MC to raise her two children and contend with her monster-in-law. Violet is now starring in a commercial. MC's slutty, fun-loving sister, Loralva, is all for traveling to Hollywood to find her, and to try to get on The Price is Right. The monster-in-law also wants to go, as her son is no longer abandoned by a tramp, but married to a genuine movie star. The monster-in-law also has a Winnebago, so the group (including the children) set out on an absolutely mapcap, whirlwind tour of the southwest, meeting bikers and country-western singers and learning valuable lessons about life, love, friendship, blah blah blah bullshit bullshit bullshit.

I can't put my finger on why this book was so flaccid, but it really just limped along. It didn't succeed at being plot or character-driven. You don't learn much more about the three principals after you first meet them. Loralva is introduced to you as an easy, fun-loving woman, and turns out that's exactly what she is. The monster-in-law is introduced to you as an overbearing, bitchy pain-in-the-ass, and turns out that's exactly what she is. MC is introduced to you as a woman who's been abandoned by everyone she loves (she's also a widow) and is doing the best with what she can...and that's exactly what she is. So, it's not character-driven, which leaves us with the plot.

The plot was a long, slow build to not much of a payoff. There was little tension to keep the book moving, and the characters were so two-dimensional that it was hard to care about them. Looking back, I'm surprised that I stuck with this one.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Booking Through Thursday

The question before the panel this week:

But, enough about books… February 7, 2008
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 1:09 am

Okay, even I can’t read ALL the time, so I’m guessing that you folks might voluntarily shut the covers from time to time as well… What else do you do with your leisure to pass the time? Walk the dog? Knit? Run marathons? Construct grandfather clocks? Collect eggshells?

It may make all of you think less of me, but what the hell, I'll be honest. I play World of Warcraft. That's right! That's my main alternate hobby these days, as the temperatures drop below freezing and the sun starts to set around 5:30. If any of you out there play, you should know:

I play on the Horde side.
I am on the Trollbane server.
My name is Benihime and I'm a level 38 blood elf mage (fire).

If you don't play, of course, you're probably still laughing at all that as being unspeakably dorky. And I guess it is, but it's fun too. It costs about 50 cents a day to play, and I definitely get my money's worth.

When the weather doesn't suck, I also like to take photographs. I had a photography blog for a while, but it got boring and cumbersome to come up with some kind of rough theme, hunt through my computer to find enough pictures to fit the theme, then paste them all in, plus, no one went there anyway. I like to walk. I play viola, and used to play in an orchestra before I moved, but haven't picked it back up again. Sometimes I go to museums, but that's an awful lot like work, and there are also a limited number of them around here. I have two cats that I like to play with and pet, but I can often do that while I read.

I like going to see movies as well, and have such a wide range of tastes that I count both the Trois Couleurs trilogy and Armageddon in my list of favorites. (Someday, someone will produce a beautiful-looking, thought-provoking film where lots of shit blows up, and I will go see it every day until it leaves the theaters...yes, yes). I am an "armchair preservation activist", which basically means that I write lots of emails that read "Please don't tear down X building because it's lovely". The one other thing I like to do is make cards for people using scrapbooking stuff.

What about you?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Total Environment

Some libraries just feel like magic when you walk inside. It's a rare feeling these days, as more and more libraries forsake their original buildings for newer (generally drab international-style) abodes. In my hometown, the original library was international-style. It also looked exactly like a Pizza Hut, and one year the senior prank was to spray-paint "Pizza Hut" on the top of it. I heard an apocryphal story that there was also a restaurant down the street called "The Pizza Hut" long before the chain existed, and that the developer stole the name from them and the architecture from our library. Anyway. Even that library has moved on now, to a newer, larger building.

Small-town libraries conjure up a range of emotions in me. Around the corner from where I used to live, there was a library that was open three days a week and housed in an old carriage house. They never had a single book I was looking for, and for the first time, I understood how it was possible to have read all of a library's books. The librarians, surprisingly enough, were these grunge-looking young dudes, with long hair, tats and piercings. They oversaw the dust and decay and the comings and goings of the Barbara Cartland and Agatha Christie novels. It made me sad, yet it also made me hopeful: here was a town that could barely afford to have a library, and yet they did anyway.

My all-time favorite library will always be Buffalo's Central branch, despite its outer International-style hideousness. This is Book Heaven, bigger than a Wal-Mart, with two entrances and guards at the doors. It has everything. There's an entire local history room that's the size of a lot of libraries. There's a cafe with a flat-screen TV. There's an escalator, a huge children's collection, a special collections room, a super-special collections room, large banks of computers, self-checkout machines that give you Wendy's coupons, and of course, all of the novels, non-fiction books and DVDs and CDs you could ever want. There's exhibit space and really pretty glass benches that are illuminated from within. Going there is almost overstimulating. I've mentioned my tendency to take as much as I can carry out every time I go to the library, the strange desparate feeling that it'll all be gone the next time I go. It's really bad there -- I want to read every book they have and persist in the delusion that I can get through ten of them in three weeks.

I also went to a really interesting small-town library recently. I met most of their staff and got to see their building, although I didn't have much time to spend with their collections (nor do I have borrowing privileges). The Swan Library in Albion is just pure magic. It's housed in an 1850s mansion with a lot of the original architectural details intact. They have books in the drawing room and the dining room. The upstairs has been renovated to house more books, the offices, the computers and a meeting room. The building's been used as a library for over 100 years. Walk in, and you feel the generations of readers who've gone before you. If there really was a book like Jumanji, if there actually exists a president's book like in the most recent National Treasure movie, it'd have to be housed somewhere like here.

One staff member told me that they've got a serious space crunch, though, and are looking at solutions. At least one scenario involves abandoning this space, and possibly turning it into a museum. I understand the need for it, but at the same time, it'd be a shame. Without naming names, I've visited libraries that are utterly soulless, and I don't think that's the way it should be. What a strange glitch they are in our capitalist, anti-intellectual society, after all. We have a government that's unwilling to provide free health care to poor kids, and a populace that's encouraged seven seasons of Big Brother and made a celebrity out of Paris Hilton, yet in any sizeable town, there is a building where anyone can go and get as many books as they can carry, all free, just as long as they bring them back. They are magic, and they should feel like it.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Curse of the Vacation Book

There's nothing worse than going on vacation and finding yourself stuck with a train wreck of a book. Last year, I read Citizen Girl on the sunny shores of Florida. This year, in wintry Pittsburgh, it was Gay Blades by Ben Tyler.

My sister told me I had no right to bitch, reading something titled that, about ice skaters. And naturally, I didn't exactly expect Shakespeare. I was at least hoping for something like Candace Bushnell or Jennifer Weiner, something light but smart and funny. But no. I know it sounds like a petty place to start, but I noticed at least two spelling mistakes in the book. "Scheherazade" wasn't even close. Also, it's masturbatory, not "mastebetory." I wondered who the copy editor was and what the manuscript was like as submitted. I'm also pretty sure that "self-mastebetory" is a grammar mistake as well, or at least a redundancy.

I picked up the book not only because it looked like it had real potential to be smart and funny, but because I've always loved ice skating. I went to see the Campbell's Champions on Ice tour three times in high school. I saw Oksana Baiul when she was fresh off her upset World Championship, and then again after her stunning performance at Lillehammer relegated the whole Kerrigan-Harding drama to nothing but backstory. In fact, I saw everyone who won a medal at those Olympics. I understand why people make fun of it, but I do genuinely like it and was interested in a backstage perspective.

The story begins with protagonist Garry getting kicked out of the American Skating Society (or A.S.S. -- why use a sledgehammer when you can use a wrecking ball?) for being too gay in his on-air comments. He's been dumped by his boyfriend the same week, and winds up in a third-rate show along with a man named Jay who freaked out in-air during a competition and landed on Peggy Fleming and the commentators during a quad jump (not possible, but whatever). Garry and Jay become instant best friends. Fictional bronze medalist Amber Nyak becomes a third member of their trio as they trek across the country playing in podunk ice rinks.

Then, Jay and Garry meet Tag. Tag is an Eve Harrington figure, who's hot and sexy and sweet and worshipful and one hell of a skater. He charms Garry and Jay into helping him get a job in the show, then stabs them in the back. His function in the book, however, is not merely as a plot device. Remember, I said he was hot and sexy? He also has sex. Lots and lots of graphic, unappetizing-sounding sex. Who knew there were so many different words for semen? Do gay men really get turned on by phrases like "punished his ass?" I don't know. I skipped through all of them after the first two. It wasn't that I found them offensive, just deeply unappealing and too intimate, like watching someone have a colonoscopy.

The writing in the book was appallingly bad. In the beginning of the book, there's a three-way sex scene that was so muddled I couldn't even tell who was with who at any given moment. The dialogue is wooden. Tag's duplicity is stunningly obvious, which makes the obliviousness of Jay, Garry and Amber all the more baffling. He had plenty of lines like, "I'll see that has-been fry in hell, and before long he'll be kissing my skate blades. Wow, what am I saying about my bestest friend and my idol? I meant, I wish him all the success in the world!" Despite that, Tag's character is the most delectable in the book. Yet, after he gets his comeuppance, in a hilarious scene where every one of his skeletons is aired and his own mother calls him an asshole, all he does is laugh and skate away.

I guess the book is supposed to be a fantasy. With the exception of the A.S.S. stiffs from the beginning of the book, there are no straight male characters in the book. All the skaters, the show owner, the network execs, everyone is gay. Most of them are attractive, too. I'm not sure what Amber's function in the book is. To me, she mostly confuses things. Maybe the book hits its mark with gay men, or with a certain type of gay man. Even so, I can't imagine this as anything but a beach book, and even at that, the writing was just so bad that it was distratcting to me.

During the trip to the library when I got this book, an older man and woman flagged down my car at a stoplight. There was a bus stop at the corner. They told me that there was a girl inside who didn't have any shoes and had been waiting for an hour. She looked to be about 17, and from a foreign country. They asked if I would help her get home, and I did. It turned out she did have shoes, but they were open-toed canvas summer shoes, and on that particular day it was below freezing. I drove her a few miles to her home. You'd think that might've translated into some good karma once I got inside the library, but virtually all the books from this current haul have sucked. Better luck next time, I guess.