Wednesday, October 29, 2008


I finished Augustyn Burrough's new book A Wolf at the Table a couple of days ago, and have put off writing about it. It's so horrifying that I don't even want to think about some of the stuff that happened in it, and so well-written that it's worthy of attention, but what to say? "It was a good read?" "I recommend this one?" "I liked it?" They all seem inappropriate.

The title character is Augustyn's father. At the beginning of the book, he stated that for a long time, he had no memories whatsoever of his father. Then, when he started remembering, he couldn't stop. His father is a terrifying, shadowy figure. When he was at his best in this book, he was denying any attention or affection to young Augustyn. So great was his need that at one point, he stole some of his father's clothing and made a "dummy dad" to cuddle with in bed at night.

When his father was at his worst, he was violent and abusive. He imbued the entire household with an aura of fear. For me, the worst scenes were those involving the family pets. I've always had an extremely strong emotional reaction to any sort of animal abuse or neglect. When Augustyn and his mother left the house in fear of their safety for the last time in the book, I was practically shaking because I knew there was one more household pet to go.

To Augustyn's credit, he tried to get inside his father's head using the few tools that he had. He tells us that his father lived the first eight years of his life with a doting grandfather and three teenaged aunts who treated him as a living doll. He was then thrown back to the home of his abusive biological parents. He won Augustyn's mother's hand by threatening to kill himself if she rejected him, and they lived horrifyingly-ever-after. This doesn't make you any more sympathetic to the man, but it helps explain how a normal person could become like that.

I'd read part of the same story a week earlier, from Augustyn's older brother's perspective. He'd hinted darkly at how his Asperrger's just may have saved his life, but the point was brought home even more clearly after this book. John Elder was older and less innocent than his brother when things started to go really bad. He was more independent (old enough not to want to cuddle) and was able to withdraw into his electronics (Augustyn remembers sneaking into his bedroom and seeing the rivulets of hardened solder on the carpet, and tubes and wires everywhere). But John Elder left out the part where he got into a violent argument with his father and Augustyn found his gun and begged him to kill their father for him; also the part where he started sneaking back home for Augystyn at night, to teach him how to shoot and defend himself. It was fascinating to see a different perspective on the man whose death I'd cried over a few days earlier. When I read the death scene in this book, all I felt was regret that it was apparently peaceful.

I read this book quickly, but it was a difficult read. I've felt sort of haunted by it ever since. I almost don't want it in the house with me. I think it's because of the ending, or lack thereof. There are plenty of books out there written by people who were abused as children. There are several narratives that they follow: "All this happened, but (s)he didn't get away with it;" "All this happened, but we made it up in the end;" "All this happened, and I survived it and look at me now." The story of Augustyn's father doesn't follow any of those. He remarried and died surrounded by the family he almost killed. Augustyn did escape the house, but his new "family" was far from suitable either. He never stopped trying with his dad, and never had much more success as an adult than as a child. And the book doesn't finish by showing him as a happy, successful adult, but as an alcoholic haunted by what he sincerely hopes are bad dreams but what he believes might be memories.

No, the narrative of this story only expands on the beginnings of those sentences: "All this stuff happened, behind closed doors, while all the while we went to school and work and the store, just like you do. All this stuff happened right down the street from someone just like you, right by people who hate child and animal abuse just like you do. So who's to say it's not happening on your street, and how do you know that man in the grocery store who gave you the cat food coupon isn't going home to starve his own son's cat to death? The man in my story could be anyone. Why, he could even be your new husband." And that thought is more terrifying than anything Stephen King ever wrote.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Cannie's Back

With all of the good books I picked out yesterday, I'd like to say that it was hard to choose one to read first. But Jennifer Weiner's Certain Girls is a 7-day book, and I also suspected it'd be a fairly fast read, so that one got the nod. I was right, too: I started the book around 8 or 9 last night and finished it around 4 this afternoon. I should note that, as this is a sequel to Good in Bed, it's not possible to write about this book without throwing in some spoilers from the last. Be on your guard.

The story alternates between the points of view of Cannie, and her now-13-year-old daughter Joy. I was disappointed a bit in Cannie at 40. All of her sharp, funny edges seemed worn off by marriage and motherhood. Her profession is to write a long-running science fiction series under a pseudonym, and she spends the rest of the time grating potatoes for a latke dinner at the synagogue, driving carpool, cooking and baking, etc. She's not as quick to poke fun at the world, and the truly funny scenes are fewer.

When her husband, Dr. Peter Krushelevansky from the last book, suggests finding a surrogate mother and having another baby, Cannie's reaction is extremely strange. She confesses to the reader that she's not all that into it, yet she capitulates to the lengthy, expensive and painful process. It doesn't seem to make so much as a ripple in Cannie's tranquil waters. Instead, she's more concerned with Joy's bat mitzah.

Joy is the real driving force of this story. She's struggling with all of the typical thirteen-year-old stuff, and more. After being the dork with the hearing aids all her life, she has a chance to become popular, although it comes at the expense of her two oldest, closest friends (oddly, Weiner gave her young heroine a Gay Best Friend too), her grades (she quits wearing her hearing aids in school) and her conscience (turns out the popular girls like to shoplift). Since Cannie was never a kewl kid, she's dismayed at some of the more superficial interests Joy is developing, which causes lots and lots of fights.

Joy has also read her mom's novel for the first time, and is shocked, hurt and embarrassed. This is a sort of "meta" plot twist: the book that Cannie wrote is supposed to be the book where we first met her, but fictionalized from what "really" happened in the book that strikes me (from her other works and the little I know of her life) as a fictionalized version of things that actually happened to Jennifer Weiner. Anyway, in that book, Cannie has reinvented herself as an easy girl, and she also makes it clear that Joy was unexpected. These two facts make Joy question everything she thought she knew about her mother, her father and the rest of her family.

All of these tensions come to bear on Joy's bat mitzvah. I was 18 before I met a Jewish person, so I have no firsthand knowlege of this, but apparently bat and bar mitzahs these days rival the Super Sweet 16 parties made famous by MTV. Joy's friends are all having huge parties with hired dancers, expensive custom-made favors, massive guest lists, catered dinners, the works. Cannie thinks these bat mitzahs teach bad values and is determined to make Joy's more traditional. Joy, of course, wants a spaghetti-strap dress and a theme like all of her friends. She also worries about the family involvement portion of it: she has three grandmothers, no grandfathers, two dads and her mom. How is she going to work everyone in? Will there be a lot of tension between her biological dad and her mom? Which of the three grandmothers will have to sit out? Can she maybe produce a grandfather after all, and find out for herself why he's not in her life? She spends most of the book doing a lot of 007 stuff to get the dress she wants, and to find out for herself which portions of her mother's book are truth and which are fiction.

Many of the other supporting characters from the earlier book make an appearance. Cannie's little sister Lucy (now Elle) is back, as is her brother. Their mother is back with a new "life partner" and Cannie's friend Samantha is also back. There are even cameos by Cannie's evil dad, Winona-I-mean-Maxi Ryder, and the Ever Tasteful Audrey (Nifkin, sadly, is seen only in Cannie's memory, having since departed to the Great Dog Park In The Sky. They did get another dog though). It was an enjoyable read, but it tried to do too much. The book would have been much better off without the baby subplot, which never fully gelled. Samantha's scenes felt as superfluous as ever, whereas Lucy/Elle's moments onstage made you want to see more of her.

Last week, for the "Coupling" BTT post, I said that a lot of novels about relationships are one-sided, with the partner standing in for happiness and self-actualization. I was actually thinking of Good in Bed, because Cannie is so interesting and vivid, and both Peter and her ex-boyfriend Bruce are shadowy and ill-defined. This seems more true after reading Cannie's happily-ever-after tale. Peter remains mostly in the shadows as a "wonderful man" who's always there for moral support and idyllic family outings and never makes any real demands, except for the bit about the baby, which never got off the ground as a driving force in the book's plot. In Little Earthquakes and Goodnight Nobody, Weiner has proven that she can write about the challenges of marriage, as the women deal with everything from a possessive mother-in-law to their own personal unhappiness. Cannie and Peter don't even have issues over who takes out the trash, and it made their relationship less real. But the mother-daughter stuff is worth coming for, as well as Elle/Lucy's too-infrequent scenes. It's still not her best book, but Cannie was well-loved by many, and I'm sure her fans are pleased to know how she turned out.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Breaking my TBR vow already, with spectacular results

I was going to stay away from the library for a bit, and read through some of the books that have been languishing on my shelves. I even re-organized my bookshelves, and put all the ones I hadn't read yet together. And...nothing. Nothing jumped out at me as being the one I had to read now. I did pick up The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir again, and it's still slow going. But I wanted to get out of the house, and go somewhere other than the grocery store or a shop that sells things I can't afford. So, the library it was.

It was a downcast and grey day here, and the mood continued through the doors of the library. Our local cable provider has been in an ongoing dispute with a local network affiliate, the result being that you can't watch any of that affiliate's programming on cable at the moment. So a group of men were huddled in the corner of the cafe, watching our football team lose via antenna. The library was showing a movie today, and the audience seemed to be a mix of folks who were excited about the film, and homeless people pleased to have the chance to sleep indoors for a change. Other than that, nothing. No wait to use any of the computers. No recent immigrants reading children's books to improve their English, no teenagers doing their term papers in the cafe, no one. Between the weather and the football game, there was ample incentive to stay home, I guess.

But the depressing atmosphere did yield a pretty spectacular haul. I scored not one, not two, but THREE new-release books that I've been interested in. I've been trying to get one of them since March, but the other two are new within the past 2 or 3 months. I also got the new Jennifer Weiner, an interesting staff pick, another book by Sarah Bird, and (hot hot HOT, circa 2000) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Always been interested in it, never remembered that fact at the library. Tomorrow, the weather is supposed to be damn near apocalyptic, so at least I'll have some good things to read in between playing the "Guess the Precipitation" game (rain? snow? hail? or all three!!!).

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Asperger's With a Side of Fries

I'd seen the book Look me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's by John Elder Robison in stores before. It looked like an interesting read, but I had the opportunity to hear him speak a few weeks ago and wound up picking up an autographed copy of it. It is an interesting and terrific read.

Asperger's Syndrome is what's known as an "autism-spectrum" disability. People who have it are deaf to social cues and often appear robotic. If you smile at them, they don't smile back because they don't know that's what you're expecting. If you start a conversation with them, perhaps by saying "How are you today?" they're likely to reply with the first thing they were thinking until they learn to do otherwise. There's a lot more to it than this, but these aspects of the syndrome seem to have the most profound effect on the lives of those who have it. Robison grew up in an era when developmental disabilities were very black-and-white: either you were retarded and had to live in a state home, or you were normal. Until he was 40, he had no idea that this diagnosis existed or could explain his life.

Even if a book about someone with this disability doesn't sound interesting to you, I reccommend this one anyway. Aside from the Asperger's, John Elder Robison has led an interesting life. He is the older brother of Augustyn Burrows, but enough years separate them that he'd escaped the madness chronicled in Running With Scissors, although he does have a bit part in that book. Still, he didn't exactly have a happy childhood. His is an old-school dysfunctional family, not the Little-Miss-Sunshine-put-the-fun-in-dysfunction type, but a real one, where his father was drinking himself to death and his mother was warning the kids about the dragons that floated on the ceiling and one or the other of them was committed every other week. Things were so bad that when he dropped out of high school, no one noticed.

Lots of kids who grow up like that come to bad ends. But in a way, Robison's Asperger's actually saved him. Another characteristic of the syndrome is an uncanny ability to focus and an extremely logical brain. For Robison, this manifested itself in an extreme mechanical inclination. He loved to fix shit. He also loved music, and wound up hooking up with a local band and working on their sound equipment. This ultimately led to a gig with Pink Floyd, and later on, designing special effects for Kiss. Ever see videos of their guitars that launched rockets and smoke bombs? Robison made those. He also designed electronic games for Milton Bradley and currently fixes high-end cars.

This book was a shockingly quick read for me -- I started it Wednesday evening this week and finished it on Thursday afternoon. I know he has another book that is either out right now or is coming out soon. I suspect he could have made the story of his life over 500 pages, as it was so eventful and interesting. He's an excellent storyteller and the book is also riotously funny in some places. (I thought I was going to pee my pants laughing during his long conversation with his young son about Santa's year-round job at a shipyard). Like A. Manette Ansay's book Limbo, which I wrote about last fall, Robison doesn't ask you to feel sorry for him, and even presents positive aspects of his disability. The book also reminded me of how much I enjoyed Running With Scissors, and I'll have to look for further works from both him and his brother the next time I'm at the library.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Weekly Meme

The question before the panel this week:

Monica suggested this one:

Got this idea from Literary Feline during her recent contest:

“Name a favorite literary couple and tell me why they are a favorite. If you cannot choose just one, that is okay too. Name as many as you like–sometimes narrowing down a list can be extremely difficult and painful. Or maybe that’s just me.”

This is a tough one. A lot of books about couples either end with them split up, or they focus solely on one person in the relationship, with the partner as a cookie-cutter symbol happiness and fulfillment. A lot of the guys that the heroines of chick-lit wind up with can barely be defined even in the broadest terms (smart? funny? caring?).

But in thinking it through a bit, I came up with two outstanding couples. The first, isn't a "couple" in the sense of romantic involvement, but are bound together nonetheless. In Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool, the "title character" Sully has had his share of romantic failures. At 60, he's been divorced from the mother of his son for decades. He nurtures a crush on his boss's wife Toby, who is about the same age as his son. For 25 years, he's also carried on a half-hearted affair with Ruth, a married woman 15 years younger than him. I liked this coupling a lot too, because it was realistic. In the movie version of the book, they had Melanie Griffith play a glammed-up Toby, and positioned her as the love interest. Ruth, a young grandmother who worked as a supermarket cashier and waitress and wore cheap slacks, was totally absent from the movie. There are more women in small towns like Ruth than like Toby, and a woman like Ruth would be more likely to take an interest in Sully.

But the real woman in Sully's life is Miss Beryl. She was his eighth-grade English teacher, and her husband was his football coach all through high school. Miss Beryl had a spinal deformity all of her life that gave her a strange appearance and made her the butt of her students' jokes. Long after her husband, Clive Sr., has died, she remains surprised by him choosing her. Her son, Clive Jr., runs the local bank and stops in frequently. But the two are completely different in their beliefs, attitudes and outlooks, and are not very close, although they do care for each other.

In high school, Sully was a frequent dinner guest at Miss Beryl's house. His own house was a horrible place to be: he had an abusive, drunken father who frequently vented his anger on Sully, on their timid mother, and on Sully's older brother Patrick, who died in a car crash. Fifty years later, Sully is a permanent tenant in an apartment in Miss Beryl's home, much to Clive Jr.'s chagrin. But their relationship is more than just that of a landlord and tenant. Miss Beryl saves the mail Sully chucks in the trash without opening and maintains a file of important papers for him. Sully helps her maintain the house, and rushes her to the hospital when she has a stroke halfway through the book. They support each other in subtle ways, and by the end of the book it's clear that in their relationship, they've both found the mother-son relationship they've always wanted, so late in life that even the memory of wanting it had almost faded away.

A more traditional "favorite couple" of mine is from The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery. Valancy Stirling, at 28, has led a lonely and unsatisfying life. No friends -- ever. No boyfriends -- ever. The object of derision from her large and annoying family, including, unfortunately, a stunningly beautiful and popular cousin her own age. When a doctor tells her she may have only a year to live, at most, she's determined to change everything. She breaks with her family. She moves in with disreputable local man to care for his ailing daughter (who was also the unwed mother of a baby that died). And then, most shockingly of all, she marries local ne'er-do-well (they still had them back then) Barney Snaith.

I picked them as a favorite couple because they were unconventional in drably conventional times, in a drably conventional literary genre. Most couples, both in real-life Victorian Canada and in books aimed at 10-13 year-old-girls, live in houses and go to nightclubs or parties for fun. Barney and Valancy lived in a shack in the woods. They rarely socialized or even went into town. When they wanted to have fun, they went hiking through the woods, looking for wild flowers (but never picking any, as Valancy didn't believe in removing them from their naturally wild place), getting to know the animals, picking roots and berries, and other woodsman stuff. Barney and Valancy were also not firmly joined at the hip: one of his pre-conditions for marrying her was that she allow him his space, stay out of one particular area of the house, and not ask questions when he told her he was going away for a few days. All of these sound to a modern women like items from Dear Abby's "Is He Having An Affair?" checklist, but Valancy accepted them without question and their relationship blossomed.

I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post that in many books, one half of the happy couple is a straw man for fulfillment and happiness. Usually, these books tell the story of courtship and end with the marriage, or at least the suggestion of long-term involvement. Barney and Valancy get married towards the beginning of the book, and throughout the rest of it, their happiness in their unconventional life sparkles and shines in comparison to Valancy's earlier misery at being mired in a more conventional one. The book has an over-the-top happy ending to the point where you actually expect someone to appear leading a diamond-encrusted unicorn for the couple to enjoy as a pet, but it doesn't diminish the developing story of their relationship.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


My favorite section of Barnes and Noble is the "remainder" table. As I've noted before, I tend to freeze up when I'm confronted with an array of books in the $25-30 range, but a $5 book is no great risk. Sure, it's not the newest book on the market, but I've never been about the latest and greatest. I tend to avoid it, actually, and try to seek out the more hidden gems. But last time, I picked up an extremely hyped novel, The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. Let me tell you, the hype is well-deserved, maybe even understated, for the quality of this book.

Vampires, and Dracula in particular, have long fascinated authors and movie-makers. The current popularity of the Twilight series, the popularity of the Anne Rice books in the late 80s and early-to-mid 90s, the multiple remakes and remixes of the Dracula story that hit theaters in the interim point to the ongoing power of the vampire to excite the imagination. I think it's because of all the mythical creatures, vampires are the most like us. Werewolves lose their intelligence when they transform. Frankenstein was cobbled together from household objects and dead bodies. Unicorns and dragons? Just more fantastic versions of horses and lizards. But vampires were once ordinary men and women, and retain some of their human characteristics while losing the one we all hate most: they will never die.

The Historian is a fantasy and a mystery for people who don't much like fantasy or mystery. I first heard about this book from a fantasy-loathing friend, who raved about it. He was also in graduate school with me, though, and the meticulous research that is an underlying theme of the book was probably what appealed to him. The plot is two stories nested together, and told through the eyes of a sixteen-year-old girl who was raised by her father. One night, she finds a curious book in his study, and he starts to tell her a remarkable tale, about his advisor Professor Rossi, who disappeared after telling him about finding a similar book, and his journey to find his advisor. Then, her father himself disappears in the middle of the night, with a note saying that he's gone to find her mother, whom he believed dead. The girl pursues her father by train, while uncovering the rest of the tale of his epic journey.

The first part of the book is a little slow, but it picks up rapidly when the girl's father Paul disappears. Elements of her pursuit of him echo his pursuit of Rossi over 20 years ago. Both have a partner in their hunt, who ultimately become lovers. Both visit out-of-the-way places in Europe. Both solve their respective mysteries through careful research and questioning, and the use of their intellectual powers. This gives a very realistic feel to what could have been an over-the-top fantasy.

Just seeing the places the characters visit makes it an enjoyable read. Paul and Helen (the narrator's parents) start in Istanbul and trek deep behind the Iron Curtain, through Helen's native Hungary and into the mountains of Bulgaria. They get to eat traditional meals, visit villages that haven't changed in centuries and participate in traditional celebrations. Paul and Helen are both strong characters, and their journey towards each other is enjoyable to watch. The book is a historical mystery, a supernatural mystery, a love story, and a travel story all at once.

But one of the most appealing devices is the mysterious book itself. Paul, Rossi and several other characters in the novel are bound together by the fantastic discovery of an ancient book in with their own possessions, with a woodcut of a dragon and the word "Drakulya". This is the item that begins each of their individual quests and fuels their research and travel despite the dangers faced along the way. It gets at the heart of the appeal of the vampire myth, and (I believe) of many other fantastic stories like the Harry Potter novels: the idea that one day, for better or for worse, you too could be chosen. That one day, in the middle of the most mundane tasks, the sudden appearance of a book, or a letter received, or a wardrobe opened might transform your ordinary life into something extraordinary. It's an idea that most of us buried deep in childhood, after we'd exhausted all the leads in our search for the gateway to Narnia, after the letter from Dumbledore should have arrived.

Most of the readers of The Historian will, of course, be too old now to actually believe in such things. But it's a fascinating feeling to remember, and I for one will surely examine the next pile of books I check out from the library a little more carefully, just in case.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: The Curse of the Long-Term TBR

Okay–here was an interesting article by Christopher Schoppa in the Washington Post.

Avid readers know all too well how easy it is to acquire books — it’s the letting go that’s the difficult part. … During the past 20 years, in which books have played a significant role in both my personal and professional lives, I’ve certainly had my fair share of them (and some might say several others’ shares) in my library. Many were read and saved for posterity, others eventually, but still reluctantly, sent back out into the world.

But there is also a category of titles that I’ve clung to for years, as they survived numerous purges, frequent library donations and countless changes of residence. I’ve yet to read them, but am absolutely certain I will. And should. When, I’m not sure, as I’m constantly distracted by the recent, just published and soon to be published works.

So, the question is his: “What tomes are waiting patiently on your shelves?“

This is a good one, as I finally just picked one of them up last week and polished it off, finding it worth the wait. The answer to this question can largely be found on this blog already -- my TBR list is an amalgalm of interesting-looking new releases, and books that have languished all these years. How did they come into my life? Some were unexpected and surprising gifts, like The Rape of Nanking and City of Masks. A shameful few were school books, assigned late in the term when I had many other things on my plate, that I never got to.

A large number came from the annual "orgy at the library," their used-book sale, where books started at a dollar each and were reduced to ten cents each on the last day of the sale. We often went several times during the week-long sale and carted out as much as we could carry. One year, I acquired most of the biographical novels by Irving Stone (of The Agony and the Ecstasy fame), which I had to have after reading his Van Gogh novel Lust for Life but still haven't read. Another significant chunk of them are refugees from my parents' purge a couple of summers ago. I was going to the library and they had all of these fascinating books they wanted me to take for the book sale. I took most of them, but kept a fair number for myself. I still haven't started them.

The question is: why not? If I checked any of these books out of the library, I'd probably get to them immediately (since I'm not even certain of a complete list, I may do that by mistake one day). I think it's because there's less of a sense of urgency with them. I am the type of person who likes to use the new things I buy right away. It hasn't changed much from childhood, where I'd be ripping open the packaging of a new toy on the car ride home. Even if it's something as mundane as a new sponge caddy, I put the sponges in it right away. Library books always have that dreadful timer running on them from the moment you check them out. But books you own, that you acquired in great numbers or needed for a class, will always be there.

It's too bad, really. I've decided (and I know I made this resolution before) that when I finish my current read, I'll choose my next book from my own library, rather than the public one.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Of Djinn and Magicians

Languishing on my TBR list for years was The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud. I just finished it a few days ago, and it was pretty enjoyable, although I'm undecided about reading the rest of the trilogy.

One unusual thing about this book is that it doesn't have a strong protagonist. The story is told from both the perspective of young apprentice magician Nathaniel and the djinni Bartimaeus that he summons. Bartimaeus seems to hold most of the personality, although that may partially be a function of his parts being told in the first person: he is witty, funny and tricky, at once disdainful of his audience and enjoying its rapt attention. Nathaniel is childish in all the negative senses of the word: he dislikes being told what to do, he feels that no one can see his potential, he is quick to anger and holds grudges.

He summons Bartimaeus to get revenge on a magician who had insulted him during a gathering at his master's house. His plan is to steal a piece of contraband from the man, then embarass him by exposing him. But all goes wrong when Bartimaeus learns his real name, giving the djinn power over the boy. Nathaniel is quick to react by slapping a post-dated indefinite confinement charm on him, thus binding the pair together. Like a couple in a bad marriage, neither one can walk away because each has something the other needs. Nathaniel's fears -- of his master finding out what he is up to, of Bartimaeus betraying him, of the whole plot blowing up in his face in one manner or another -- and Bartimaeus's resentment of his forced servitude are what drives the plot.

The one real criticism I have of this book is that I thought the plot dragged a bit. Beyond that, I'm not sure why it failed to capture my imagination. It certainly is different from many books involving magic: for one, the magicians operate in the open and are accepted by society, for another, there's the lack of an obvious sympathetic figure. There's nothing noble about Nathaniel at all, and Bartimaeus is intriguing, but too misanthropic to really warm up to. You certainly wouldn't want one of your own. All in all, though, it was a decent and enjoyable read, very funny in some parts, and intriguing for the bits of Bartimaeus's life and backstory that filter through. I probably will read the rest of the trilogy at some point, but I'm in no rush to do so.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Two Endorsements: One Fun, and One Serious

image from barackobama.netimage from

Let's get the serious one out of the way first: it should surprise no one who's taken note of my favorite authors or read any of my more political posts that I will be proud to cast a vote for Barack Obama in three weeks' time, and that I hope everyone else does too. This has been an extremely long campaign, and during much of the beginning part of it, I'd hoped that Hillary Clinton would be our candidate (as I'd hoped since I was 16...sigh). I was unconvinced about Obama at first, but the more I hear of him, the more I like him. He's well-spoken and passionate. Some people would have you believe he's an "elitist", but I think the president should be elite. After all, we let a dumbass give it a try for eight years, and look what's happened.

I'd tried to write out a longer commentary, but realized I could not possibly state it better than the New Yorker's editors did last week when they officially endorsed Obama. It's an excellent article, well worth your time. In the past few weeks, it's become so apparent that the country's in serious trouble that even the Republican Masters of Denial can't ignore it anymore. I believe that of the two candidates, Obama is the only one with the patience and understanding to start to get things back on the right track.

Now for my fun endorsement: Leanne Marshall as the winner of Project Runway. This Wednesday, at 9PM on Bravo, we'll get to find out if the judges felt the same way. I caught most of this season, and thought it was reality television at its best. Heroes! Villians! Wacky characters! High highs! Low lows! The triumph of victory! The agony of defeat!

Well, maybe that's a bit much, but it was a pretty exciting season. Leanne stood out for me right away because of her personality. In a case full of opulent Harry Winston and Tiffany 5-karat rocks, Leanne was the simple opal ring that you couldn't help but be drawn to. She was so meek and mild that I wondered how she'd fare in such a high-stress, competitive, backstabbing environment. But week after week, she proved herself. She's won two challenges and has made it all the way to the end now.

Usually, the "home visit" episode decides it for me. Last season, I was touched and inspired to see Christian Siriano's tiny apartment, with the studio that doubled as bedroom. Generally, Tim will talk to the contestant about his or her collection, and then the contestant will take Tim to meet family, friends or significant others. Christian had no one to show off. All his family, he explained, lived far away and only came up rarely. At an age where most people are still trying to find themselves, Christian not only knew what he wanted but had sacrificed everything to get it. So I was very pleased when he won, and I'm happy about the successes he's had already. Hopefully they've allowed him to get a two-bedroom apartment!

In Leanne's case, I was sold by her collection. I think the wave shapes are innovative and beautiful. I loved her wedding and bridesmaid's dresses, and I think her collection has a very cohesive look. It was also probably pretty technically challenging, but it all looks beautifully made.

image from

I liked seeing Korto's family and hearing her story too, but I pick Leanne for the ethereal beauty of this collection. You look at it and you feel like you're at the ocean. It's such a simple, beautiful inspriation, and I'd love to see more from her.

Friday, October 10, 2008

In Training

Well, once again I'm going to try NaBloPoMo. Last year, it was a success: I made it 30 days with posting every single day. Some days it was hard to come up with anything to say. Some days I had to rely on memes, or cheat a bit buy posting about how I didn't know what to post about. But overall, it was a fun challenge. I realized that I've been horrible about posting lately and that this was coming up, so I'm going into training. I'm going to try to post at least three times a week until November 1, when I have to start posting every day. So the blog should be a little more active. I have some ideas for new features, but you'll have to come back to see what they are!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Return of Booking Through Thursday

I’ve seen this series of questions floating around the ‘net the last few days, and thought it looked like a good one for us!

What was the last book you bought?

(answer here)

Name a book you have read MORE than once

(answer here)

Has a book ever fundamentally changed the way you see life? If yes, what was it?

(answer here)

How do you choose a book? eg. by cover design and summary, recommendations or reviews

(answer here)

Do you prefer Fiction or Non-Fiction?

(answer here)

What’s more important in a novel - beautiful writing or a gripping plot?

(answer here)

Most loved/memorable character (character/book)

(answer here)

Which book or books can be found on your nightstand at the moment?

(answer here)

What was the last book you’ve read, and when was it?

(answer here)

Have you ever given up on a book half way in?

(answer here)

So here goes:

What was the last book you bought?

I had to think really hard on this one. It's been quite a while, but I think it was probably Bright Lights, Big Ass by Jen Lancaster. Good read, too.

Name a book you have read MORE than once

Name a book I haven't read more than once, is more like it! I am a serial re-reader. But one book I like to go back to every year is Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo. The story is set between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve, so that's when I usually read it. Then again, there are some books, like L.M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle that are so familiar to me that I barely even need the book anymore to re-read it.

Has a book ever fundamentally changed the way you see life? If yes, what was it?

I actually left this one for last, because it's so hard. I've been sitting here thinking about it for a few minutes, and I still don't know the answer. There are a lot of books that have opened my eyes to various issues (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, What's My Name, Fool? by Dave Zirin) and some that have even had a direct impact on my behavior (after learning in Schoolgirls by Peggy Orenstein that teachers subconsciously called on boys more often than girls, I've made a conscious effort to alternate when I'm leading a tour of schoolchildren). But as for a book that fundamentally changed my whole point of view, I can't think of one. Then again, those moments are so subtle in life that they're easy to miss.

How do you choose a book? eg. by cover design and summary, recommendations or reviews

I've chosen books by all of the above and more: the author, the subject matter, the cool title (remember "The Porno Girl?"), recommendations from friends and family, references to it in a magazine article, seeing the movie it was based on, hearing about it from a famous author, and the ever-popular "because my book club said so." I don't have one set way of choosing what I want to read.

Do you prefer Fiction or Non-Fiction?

I like fiction better. I find it more powerful, and if it's based on something real, I find it teaches me more. Barbara Kingsolver explained the power of fiction in an essay using the story of a plane crash. If you read about a plane crash in the news, where all the passengers were lost, you think "that's too bad. Thank God none of my friends or family were on that plane" and you generally go about your day. But if you were to read a short story about that same plane crash, and follow the morning of one of the passengers, as she packed her suitcase, kissed her husband and daughter goodbye at the terminal, and boarded the plane that was taking her to a job interview in a distant city, you'd really feel the loss, and really understand what a tragedy the plane crash was. Good nonfiction can do that too (I think of Stewart O'Nan's The Circus Fire) but a lot of times, it's fairly bloodless.

What’s more important in a novel - beautiful writing or a gripping plot?

I think they're both equally important. They need each other in order to make any book worth reading.

Most loved/memorable character (character/book)

It is still, and always, Eilonwy from Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series. She is a princess and enchantress, brave, funny and clever. She's a worthy companion for the protagonist, Taran, and also provides some comic relief. I hate the choice she makes at the end of the series, and I hate what Disney did to her character in the movie version of The Black Cauldron, but the character as Lloyd Alexander wrote her is still wonderful.

Which book or books can be found on your nightstand at the moment?

The smartass answer would be that I don't keep books there, because it's a very small space and my cat likes to climb on it. So it's almost always bare except for my lamp and alarm clock. If they mean, "what are you currently reading," it's The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Strauss, but I don't keep it there, although it is sometimes there overnight.

What was the last book you’ve read, and when was it?

Readers will be shocked, SHOCKED, to learn that it's The Flamenco Academy by Sarah Bird, that I finished last week.

Have you ever given up on a book half way in?

I never used to, but after the death of a professor convinced me that life was too short to plow through stuff that sucks, you bet I have. I think the most recent one was that abominable piece of "Christian" fiction, Doesn't She Look Natural that I actually threw across the room after the nasty passage about homosexuality. A while back, I did have to give up on David Copperfield halfway through because I'd already renewed it twice. I'm still sorry about that.