Sunday, November 30, 2008

In B4 Deadline

NaBloPoMo just ended, and I made it! Congratulations to everyone else who did too!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Blast Off: My First Early Review

I mentioned earlier this week that I had been sent a copy of William Elliott Hazelgrove's new novel, Rocket Man. Hazelgrove wrote the book with the support of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park (Illinois), and got to work on the book in the house in which Hemingway was born. This is his fourth novel, and will be out from Pantonne Press later this month.

A week ago, the Booking Through Thursday question was related to these early review books, and whether or not reviewers should feel obligated to review them positively. Now that I've received one, I understand the dilemma a bit better. Getting a review copy, with a letter from the publisher, makes the endeavor much more personal. It's not some random book you happened to pluck off the shelves, written years ago by someone who's moved on to other projects by now, or maybe even moved on from this mortal coil altogether. It represents the hopes and dreams of a real person, and your response to it may help determine whether said real person will get to keep his or her home or not.

Even without all of this, Rocket Man probably would have been a challenge to write about. Picking up an independently published novel like this is a little like going to that sketchy dive in your neighborhood and ordering the food. Things in there are not quite what a diner who sticks mostly to known local places and/or chain restaurants has come to expect. There may be burned out light bulbs, battered carpeting, grotty restrooms, ass grooves in all of the chairs, and people smoking despite the fact that it's been illegal in the state for over five years. In some of those places, the food is in keeping with the decor. In others, it's much more delectable than at the four-star restaurant with the wait list down the street.

Rocket Man had its share of cosmetic problems: misspelled words, AWOL punctuation, continuity errors, and in at least one case, a word used incorrectly. But it turned out to be a decent book, that got better as it went along. If you pick this one up, you need to give it a chance.

It's hard to write about a character who is having an existential crisis, because such crises are always in one's head. In a sense, both G of Citizen Girl and Nathan of Summer People were in the grips of existential crises, but they just came off as whiny assholes, and at first, Dale Hammer comes off exactly the same way. His major damage seems to be that he and his family have moved out of a trendy city neighborhood to a wealthy suburban subdivision. Dale, a novelist, feels that he has sold out. He hates the community and the people in it, and misses no opportunity to sneer at their materialism, their shallowness, and their fidelity to law and order. The first scene of the book is about his decision to drive over an undeveloped lot to ferry a group of Cub Scouts from Dairy Queen to McDonald's, rather than use the roads like a normal person.

This scene gets five full pages, and is painted as a triumph of individual freedom over fascist repression (due to the fact that another adult is in the car and freaks out the entire time). I was starting to think that Hazelgrove could have used a good editor, and I guess this would be my main criticism of the book. Someone needed to put a stopper in sentences like: "The party around our marble bar on the patio was dried up salsa and obelisks of salted rims that had dashed many a margarita the night before." But fortunately, these ramblings got scaled back quickly in favor of more dialogue.

Dale is facing an uncertain future. He and his wife have been having problems ever since they moved to the suburbs. His writing is not going well, so he's taken up mortgage brokering, which is also not going well. He somehow got conned into being the "Rocket Man" for his son's Cub scout troop Rocket Day, and the higher-ups in the troop do not appreciate his laid-back attitude towards the particulars of Rocket Day (minor things like making sure the rockets are ordered, and learning how to launch them). His traveling salesman father appears on his doorstep, fired from another job and kicked out of the house by another wife, to sleep over his garage and meddle in his life.

It takes a while for all of these issues to fully emerge and settle on the reader's impression of Dale. I thought he was just an asshole at first. I especially disliked him after a scene between him and the man who started Rocket Day. Dale has never met this man before, as the man's son is several years over, but he goes to his house to obtain the launchers and learn how to operate them. He takes two cell phone calls during the course of his demonstration. At the end, the conversation takes a surprising turn as the man revealed how much being Rocket Man had meant to him, how much he was going to miss it, how difficult it was for him to watch his son get older, and what a noble and beautiful event he felt it was. The man's soliloquy actually made me cry when I read it, but Dale blows it off with a flip comment about how he was unsure whether to shake the man's hand or get the net. After bitching for nearly 100 pages about the phoniness, boredom, and materialism of everyone around him, when he actually is confronted with something real, he responds exactly the way the rest of the cyborgs would.

But I kept going with the book after that, and it did get better. Dale's dislike of everything around him is just a symptom of his real problems, and by the end of the book, he has made headway on them, even if they haven't all gone away. While I wouldn't describe this as a funny book, there are some genuinely funny scenes, such as when he drops in on a tenant to collect rent, who staggers out shirtless from behind the couch into a pile of dirty laundry to give an eloquent take on racism in America. Dale's father also provides constant comic relief, as he tries his gentlemanly southern charm routine on everyone he meets, sometimes to great effect, and sometimes not so much.

The publisher told me that this was a book for the times. I'm not sure if I'd go quite that far, but it's an excellent read. Whatever the final verdict on this book winds up being, it was nice to read something with so much heart. A lot of the books out there are very formulaic. You know what's going to happen in them just from reading the back. No one involved in its production ever loved for itself, just for its ability to move lots of units and hopefully become optioned as a movie or television show. The reason Rocket Man was published was because people believed in it, and wanted to share it with you and me. I'm glad for the opportunity to read something like that. Here's hoping it goes as far as it can.

Friday, November 28, 2008


Booking Through Thursday, one day late for the holiday:

Today is Thanksgiving here in the U.S.

Now, you may have noticed that the global economy isn’t exactly doing well. There’s war. Starvation. All sorts of bad, scary things going on.

So–just for today–how about sharing 7 things that you’re thankful for?

This can be about books, sure–authors you appreciate, books you love, an ode to your public library–but also, how about other things, too? Because in times like these, with bills piling up and disaster seemingly lurking around every corner, it’s more important than ever to stop and take stock of the things we’re grateful for. Family. Friends. Good health (I hope). Coffee and tea. Turkey. Sunshine. Wagging tails. Curling up with a good book.

So, how about it? Spread a little positive thinking and tell the world what there is to be thankful for.

This is a good one! Here is my list:

1. Thankful for my family, including my boyfriend and cats, and friends. They're always there when I need them, and always make me feel better about things. We have a lot of fun together and share a lot of things. Even when things aren't perfect, they're wonderful and we always work them out.

2. I'm thankful for my mentors. I met them by pure chance several years ago. They've helped me so much, serving as graduate school and professional references, and getting me involved with a local professional organization. Right now, they're all doing well, and I'm not. This would be a perfect time for them to turn their backs on me. It happens to people who lose their jobs all the time: people who have been friends and/or mentors for years suddenly look at them and see not their longtime associate, but their worst nightmare come to life. But my mentors are still there for me, providing as much advice and moral support as they can, and still offering to serve as references for me whenever I get a glimmer of hope. There's nothing in it for them at all. They're just excellent people and I'm lucky to have them in my life.

3. I'm thankful for orchestra. It gets me out of the house a couple of times a week, it helps me connect with something I love doing, makes me feel like a part of things and keeps me sane.

4. I'm thankful for Barack Obama, more specifically, that he got voted into office. The country needs change, optimism and a fresh outlook. He's got a lot of challenges ahead of him, but I think he's up for them.

5. I'm thankful for the libraries. My area has lost a few of them over the past few years, and may lose a few more in the near future. Libraries have always seemed almost too good to be true to me, though, and I'm glad they're still around, in any form.

6. I'm thankful for my apartment. Low rent, spacious, decent neighborhood, offstreet parking, porch, dishwasher, garden, free heat and laundry -- it has everything. I'm glad I opted for a cheaper place, too.

7. I'm thankful that I don't work at my old job anymore. I've been thinking about them more lately for some reason.And every time I do, I almost laugh out loud, I'm so happy not to be there anymore. I will continue to feel that way even if the next best job I can get is cleaning bus station toilets with my tongue, I'll laugh between gargles. And be glad that I'll never have to go back there or deal with those people ever again.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy, but somber, Thanksgiving!

I set my home page to a while ago to force myself to pay more attention to what's going on in the world. Usually the featured articles are things like "Woman has 1000-pound tumor removed from leg". But in this visual era, you can tell when something serious is going on by the design of the page. So I knew that the terrorist attacks in India were a big deal without even reading through. I was even more surprised this morning to learn that they're not over and the group responsible is still holding hostages and killing people.

It's so terrifying to think about, and so odd that the rest of us on the other side of the globe will go on with their days, eating turkey, hanging with family, and watching football. It's going to be a shitty Thanksgiving for lots of Americans, who maybe haven't worked in a while, or are looking at heading back to work after retirement, or are wondering how they're going to provide any kind of holiday for their families. I guess this kind of puts it in a grim perspective. Even if you don't think you have anything to be thankful about this day, there are about 125 people -- and counting -- who would gladly trade places with you.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

On the Trail of Our Founders

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in America. The stated meaning of this holiday is a celebration of friendship and collaboration among the Pilgrims and the Indians, the anniversary of the day when they pooled their resources to celebrate harvest together.

The real story of the beginning of America is much less simple, more geographically diffuse, with more characters than the Pilgrims from England and the Wampanoag Tribe from coastal Massachusetts. The real story has Vikings and Spaniards and Indian tribes that once had massive agricultural empires. This is the story that Tony Horwitz attempts to trace in A Voyage Long And Strange.

I loved Horwitz's other two books, but as I said last week, this one was missing something. About halfway through, I figured out what it was: a sidekick. In Confederates in the Attic, Horwitz's guide through much of the former Confederacy was the eccentric Robert Lee Hodge, a hardcore re-enactor who went on crash diets to maintain the appearance of a half-starved Confederate soldier, studied photographs of the dead on battlefields to improve the realism of both his gear and his deaths, and worked a menial job at Home Depot because they were willing to leave him off the schedule whenever he had a re-enactment to attend. In Blue Latitudes, his companion was the sardonic, adventurous Roger Williamson. In this book, he's flying solo and, like real-life solo travel, it tends to get monotonous.

I was also complaining that Horwitz doesn't give enough time to the modern folks. I loved this aspect of his other books best, the way in which he took such a major event and showed how it influenced individual lives decades and centuries later. This book didn't do this as much. He meets a lot of interesting people: a wide variety of re-enactors; a woman involved in the "identification repentence" movement; members of the Paumunkey Tribe in Virginia, one of the few tribes that occupies their original lands as a result of one of the few treaties that was actually honored; Roanoke colony theorists, and members of several heritage societies like the Degree of Pocahontas and the First Families of Virginia. But most of them only get a couple of pages, and they seem more like eccentrics and less like living evidence of the impact of conquest and colonization.

I guess I never really got into this one. I did like his final conclusion, about the dominance of myth over fact, and the ongoing power of Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower in American imagination. If I had picked up this book expecting something different -- a simple history of the exploration of North America, using primary source documents and interviews with modern experts -- I probably would have viewed the book differently. As it is, I was glad to be done with this one...and very sorry to be saying that.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

About NaBloPoMo

So, I've been seriously thinking about whether I want to do this again next year. Last year was my first time doing it, and I got a lot out of it. I started this blog because I was inspired by my friend Hedwig (see sidebar). I saw how much she got out of her blog, and I realized one night that I could do a blog about the books I read, since I didn't have cable at the time and had precious little else to do at night but read. But I'd always kind of done it half-assed. I'd post when I felt like it, forget about it the rest of the time, and I never seriously worked at bringing more traffic to the blog, or becoming part of a community of bloggers, or anything like that.

I learned about NaBloPoMo at Jen Lancaster's blog (also on sidebar) and decided to try it. Last year, I really enjoyed it. I joined a million groups and started a lot more. Every time I went to their site, there was a lot of action. The groups were all busy, people supported one another, I got a lot of new readers and learned about a lot of cool new blogs.

This year...not so much. The site is starting to take on the same feel as a virtually-abandoned mall, where the proprietors of the few remaining businesses stand in front of their stores, alone amidst a sea of vacant spaces while handfuls of elderly mallwalkers meander by. Only a handful of new groups were created this year, and all of the groups I made and joined have been deader than dead. I tried to get some discussion going in a couple of them, but no one replied. A "poll of the week" question remained the same for about three weeks straight before it was taken down and not replaced. Even the activity section has slacked off. It used to be that the "latest posts" all hit within the last two minutes: in other words, new posts were constantly going up. I looked now and some of them have been up there for over a half hour.

So on one hand, I'm not sure if I'm going to do it next year. But on the other hand, maybe NaBloPoMo has transcended its site. Maybe people aren't going there to talk about it anymore, maybe they're just doing it. But I miss the sense of community, personally. Now that I'm in the home stretch, this has started to feel less like fun, and more like how I have to clean the coffeepot out every day.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Careful What You Wish For

As I was getting out of the shower today, I realized that all of my jeans were still in the dryer. I begged my boyfriend to go downstairs and get them. He came back with not only the laundry, but a package for me.

"I didn't order anything," I said. I got paranoid for a minute, remembering that they never did find out who was mailing anthrax to people several years back. But I decided to open it anyway, and it turned out to be...a review book!

Remember how I was just saying that Library Thing never picks me? Well, I got picked this time, apparently. It may have been a random thing, as I didn't register for books this month (I forgot) and the book is from an independent publisher.

It's called "Rocket Man," and it's a novel about a man who moves to the suburbs, is accused of knocking over the sign to his subdivision and is also roped into organizing some sort of Boy Scout "Rocket Day" for his son's troop. That's virtually all I know about it. The publisher says that it's a book for the times, like On The Road and Brith Lights, Big City. We will see. I'm almost done with the Tony Horwitz, so I'll start on this one next. I'm supposed to post a review of it over at Library Thing, but you know I'll post one here too!

BTW, thanks to Stella Devine for the new name for yesterday's feature: Little Sister Syndrome!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A New Feature: Insert Name Here

I don't know what to call this one, but inspiration hit when I saw a copy of George Orwell's Burmese Days on my bookshelf. Most people know Orwell from 1984 or Animal Farm. Before he wrote either of the books that was turn his name into an adjective, he wrote this novel, inspired by the years he spent living and working in colonial Burma. I'd never the hell heard of it before my Colonial and Post-Colonial Literature professor assigned it, but it's very good. So the idea behind the feature is that it profiles lesser-known works by well-known authors. The Blue Castle instead of Anne of Green Gables. The Town and the City instead of On the Road. Sometimes, they're lesser-known for the fact that they aren't very good. Sometimes, they're lesser-known because the other works are so big they overtake the ones that don't fit in.

This is the case with Burmese Days, I think. Unlike Orwell's two better-known works, this one is utterly realistic and set in the time in which it was written. Everything in the story could have happened exactly the way it did. In fact, one gets the impression that elements of the story happened throughout much of the British Empire in Southeast Asia.

The story centers around Flory, a man who's about 35 and has lived in Burma much of his adult life, working for a timber company. He hates it. He hates, most of all, his British co-workers and the stifling society that they've imported there. Forced into an unfamiliar environment, they've clung to their British ways, and that includes a strict social hierarchy that native Burmese do not have a place in. There are so few British people out there that doing whatever you want isn't really an option.

Flory has, against all odds, made a Burmese friend, but it's not a friendship of equals. Dr. Veraswami admires the British a great deal and admires Flory, too. He sees him as more of a powerful ally than a true friend, and early in the story, asks for his help in getting admitted to Flory's social club, as there's a man in the area who is seeking to discredit him. Yet, this would never fly with the racist members of Flory's club, putting Flory in the unenviable position of having to hurt a friend to placate people he can't stand.

In the midst of all this appear Elizabeth. Women were apparently rare enough in colonial Burma, and single women were downright oddities. Elizabeth runs practically straight into Flory on her first day in Burma, and Flory grasps at this straw immediately. From a few comments she makes, he senses that she's an intellectual, one that could be a true partner to him and enjoy the native culture as much as he does. The tragedy of this story is that he has the entirely wrong idea about her. Elizabeth hates books and art, has no interest whatsoever in native culture, and simply wants to find a husband.

All these controversies that suddenly boil over into Flory's previously dull life take a heavy toll on all those invovled, and Burma ultimately winds up chewing up Flory and spitting him out. It's an excellent picture of a culture clash. The British tried to impose morals and customs on a setting that couldn't accomodate them, holding dances when there was no one to dance with, demanding ice for their drinks when it had to be imported, refusing to mix at all. But even truly mixing wasn't an option, because of everything that had happened before. Previous waves of British people had made it perfectly clear that they viewed Burmese as inferior to themselves, so most Burmese either hated them for their arrogance, exploited them for their money (like Flory's Burmese consort), or revered them as something just less than gods, as Dr. Veraswami did.

Flory even came to feel that leaving wasn't an option. At some point, he realized that he wouldn't fit in to true British society any better than he'd fit in to the imported version or to Burmese society itself. He talked of realizing, all at once, that his youth had gone and that Burma was now his home, for better or for worse. Despite the fact that none of his colleagues come off well, and that history shows how the various colonial experiments worked out, one can't help but feel a bit sorry for them in spite of themselves. All of his co-workers were alcoholics of one degree or another, and the scenes in the club are always full of bitter, angry talk about the natives and the weather. He writes of the fate of those that wind up going back, to live in boarding houses and talk incessantly of their lives abroad until cirrhosis claims them.

It's been years since I've read Orwell's better-known works, so it's hard for me to judge this against them. But taken on its own, I thought it was a fascinating depiction of life in the British Colonies, with fully developed characters and an interesting plot. I'd reccommend this one as worth a look.

Now, does anyone have an idea for a name for this feature?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Books of a Feather: Forces of Darkness

I came up with this one late last night, and decided to look at several series of books, rather than individual books. Forces of darkness are primarily the provenance of fantasy. Realistic books contain nasty bosses, catty rivals, or heinous ex-boyfriends, but not any real evil, generally. So the books I picked to discuss are the Prydain books by Lloyd Alexander, the Harry Potter books by J.K Rowling, and the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman.

The oldest of these is the Prydain books. Written in the 1970s and 1980s, these are the most like classic fantasy. They tell the story of Taran, an orphan raised by an enchanter whose main duties involve the care and feeding of an oracular pig. In the first book, his charge wanders off and he chases it away from the enchanter's farmstead, far into the woods...and smack into the crown prince of the realm. He is able to prove his worth to this man and assist him on his journey. As Taran matures, he grows into a worthy fighter and adventurer and is aided by the companions he meets in the first book. With the exception of the peripatetic, introspective Taran Wanderer, all of their adventures come in thwarting one man: Arawn Death-Lord, King of Annuvin, who seeks to destroy and conquer Prydain.

The Harry Potter plotline also, of course, is a coming-of-age story. But by the time it was published, readers liked to understand their evil a little better. The Prydain books belong to the protagonists, to Taran and Gwydion and all the friends they meet on their journeys. It's not until the very end of the final book that we come face-to-face with Arawn, and then he's killed almost immediately. In Harry Potter, evil gets a bit more of a backstory. Voldemort can be understood in ordinary psychological terms as a sociopath. Anyone who's ever watched one of those A&E specials on serial killers will recognize Voldemort's background: raised in a cold and stark environment, has an utter lack of empathy for others, sees his fellow humans as tools rather than people, conceals all of this with a smooth charming facade. It's easier to understand how he gained so many followers this way. Dumbledore himself explains that he attracted those with a bent towards cruelty who wanted new outlets as well as the weak who sought protection and glory that they were unable to get on their own.

What remains obscure is Voldemort's point of view. We know only that he disliked "mudbloods" and Muggles. His insistence on racial purity can't help but evoke Hitler to a modern reader, but it's absent the ideology. It's easy for the reader to understand the psychological reasons for supporting Voldemort, but harder to understand the intellectual reasons. The Death Eaters clearly had wonderful group cohesion, but the goal towards which they were working always remained somewhat murky in my mind.

His Dark Materials probably portrays the forces of darkness most realistically. They aren't united, for one thing: sometimes they work together, but they remain distinct entities with their own viewpoints. They're also composed, mostly, of ordinary people. They also believe that they're right, and carry out the most monstrous deeds convinced that it's a means to an end. The gruesome research of severing the bonds between human children and their "daemons" (an external part of themselves) was done to help people, much like experiments on lab rats, except in this case, they had no choice but to use humans, as no other creature has a daemon. The head of these experiments is also the protagonist's mother, and is one scary lady when we first meet her. But, surprisingly, she winds up repenting before the books are over. Lyra's father, on the other hand, seems at first a positive figure, but the pendulum swings several times before his own end.

Lloyd Alexander also plays somewhat with the idea of good and evil being inherent in everyone, particularly in the second book. This is probably the main flaw of the Harry Potter series, though. None of Harry's friends are seriously tempted in any way by the Death Eaters, nor do any of the Slytherins ever express so much as a glimmer of desire to support the Order of the Phoenix. My friend Sophie wondered why they didn't just lock up everyone who was sorted into Slytherin as a precaution and be done with it. The worst Harry ever faces is the transference of Voldemort's soul as a result of the curse that failed, but it never serves as any sort of temptation.

I think the closer definition of the forces of evil is part of a trend twoards greater realism in fantasy. Most of the popular recent fantasy books have been set in the modern era. The protagonists drive cars and watch television. In The Amulet of Samarkand, even the secrecy of magic was gone, so that being a magician was rather like being a plumber or a doctor. It's a fine line, for going too far with that will make the fantasy cease to be compelling. But perhaps modern readers want to see themselves in what they read, rather than getting swept away into another world.

Friday, November 21, 2008

D'oh! Booking Through Thursday arrives a day late

Driving home from orchestra rehearsal tonight, I had no idea what I was going to blog about tonight. None. I've thrown all my "get out of jail free cards." My book is slow going, and I already wrote about how it was slow going. There's not a whole lot else going on right now. No house fires or robberies or anything like last year. Then I realized something. Yesterday was Thursday, and I didn't do BTT! So here goes:

I receive a lot of review books, but I have never once told lies about the book just because I got a free copy of it. However, some authors seem to feel that if they send you a copy of their book for free, you should give it a positive review.

Do you think reviewers are obligated to put up a good review of a book, even if they don’t like it? Have we come to a point where reviewers *need* to put up disclaimers to (hopefully) save themselves from being harassed by unhappy authors who get negative reviews?

Well, I've never been lucky enough to be in this position. LibraryThing has never picked me (this month it's my fault, I forgot to ask for books). And my blog has not garnered so much attention that publishers are beating down my door begging for opinions on their latest offerings. But just intuitively, I would say that the answer to this question is a resounding "NO!"

A couple of years ago, I attended a museum conference that featured a presentation by one of the leading museum evaluators in the state. She titled her presentation "Does This Make Me Look Fat?" and explained that sometimes museum evaluation (of exhibits, programs, etc.) can be frustrating because her clients weren't coming at it with an open mind. Just like when someone asks that question, there's a response they're looking for from the evaluator. Maybe they just want to hear how wonderful they are, or maybe they're trying to win an argument with someone else in the institution ("See, I told you two hours was too long for the toddler program! She agrees with me!")

That's the problem with sending out review copies: they will get reviewed. Not every blogger will love every book. It's still ultimately just one opinion, no matter how educated and respected that opinion is. A lot of people really liked Jennifer Weiner's new book. And I'm sure plenty of people hated the Motley Crue autobiography. Knowing that won't change my mind about either book, though. So I don't think reviewers should feel obligated to give a positive review. I also think reviewers should own their opinions if authors complain to them about being reviewed badly.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Bad Time to Bog Down

Of all the months of the year in which to bog down in a book, NaBloPoMo is probably the worst. Yet that's what's happening to me right now. Normally, I don't "bog down" in books. If it's not engaging, I pull out the bookmark and go on to the next book. But this book is different. It's by Tony Horwitz.

His other two books have been awesome. I just wrote about the one. His other book is a journey through the lands that Captain Cook explored. He visited Australia, Tahiti, Tonga, the obscure country of Niue, and Hawaii. He also went to Cook-related sites in England and met with Cook scholars and enthusiasts. He spent time on a ship designed to give modern people the experience of life at sea in the 1700s (he said it was very difficult and uncomforatble). What I loved about his books was the way he showed the connections between the present and the past. He spoke with people who had been directly influenced by the Civil War and by Cook's journey's, for better or for worse. He got inside of the heads of the people who'd lived the initial events through primary sources, explored the gaps between modern perception and their lived reality, and was able to paint a picture that included everybody.

This book is about the conquistadores and the discovery and settlement of the New World. But so far, the modern people are not in the story much. Or maybe it's that the people he's met just aren't as memorable. I read the other two books very quickly. It's taken me over a week to get halfway through his new one, A Voyage Long And Strange. I do intend to keep going with it, but why, why did I have to pick it up during NaBloPoMo?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Fear and Loathing: On the Job Market 2008

Here are some highlights of my recent job hunt:

1. Chainsawing my resume to exclude my graduate degree and all my publications and presentations, in order to make room for my mad Microsoft Office skillz and my vast knowledge of phone-answering techniques. I'm a blink away from writing on there that I have over 25 of experience in answering phones. I think I was about five or six when my parents started letting me do that, so it's not a lie.

2. Filling out a lengthy questionaire at a temp agency about the types of welfare I've received in the past year, watching a video that offered interview tips such as "Be on time" and "Thank the interviewer for his or her time," browsing a catalog of $8.00/hr jobs advertised as being on the bus route, then being told with a straight face that my lack of administrative experience will be a problem because "companies come to us to get the best."

3. Being told by another temp agency that they did not have any jobs. None whatsoever. At least they leveled with me!

4. Talking with a friend who recently had a position open at her job. She told me that they have put all hiring on hold, that one of her other co-workers just left so she's down to one part-timer and herself. She told me that the state arts agency taht partially funded the position I was applying for has gotten massive cuts and she doesn't know what's going to happen. On the bright side, she is a delightful person and it's always nice to talk to her, even when she has bad news.

5. Visiting the website of a professional organization that updates their job listings weekly and realizing that there have only been two new postings all month.

6. Spending all day filling out forms on the websites of two branches of the nation's armed forces (because they won't accept a normal resume). These forms contain much of the same data that's found on my resume, but are not customized for my field. So there's no way to tell them about my presentations and publications, just a way to express my utter inexperience at operating a backhoe, drill press or snowplow. A month after I filled one of these out, I received a letter in the mail congratulating me on the fact that they had not, in fact, decided to use my electronic form as e-kindling. Maybe by next summer they'll call me for an interview.

7. Checking in on my jobs newsgroup and realizing the postings there are as sparse as the ones on my professional organization's website. This is particularly bad because the moderator casts a broad net that encompasses the federal and state jobs websites, all of the postings on all of the professional organization websites (there are local, state and regional orgs for every part of the country), sites like and, international postings, and postings that seem to contain inside information.

8. Realizing, depressingly, that the days I get up early and devote myself to job-seeking are yielding the exact same results as the days when I slack off.

Folks, it's rough out there. This is possibly the worst time to be looking for a job since the late 1980s. My field is tight during the best of times, but charitable giving is usually the first thing people cut when looking to save money, foundations aren't seeing the income investment that they used to be, and governments often cut cultural funding first.

Yet it seems that once you go a particular route in life, it can be difficult to change course. If you try to switch to a different field, you're up against people who have degrees, experience and connections in that field while trying to show why you're a better fit than they are. Even survival jobs can be tough. No employer wants to act as a holding pen, and you may get the bizarro experience I did of being both overqualified and underqualified for a job at the same time.

This is usually where the "loathing" starts to come in. If you troll job forums, you'll notice a lot of anger towards employers, people demanding things they probably know they have no right to expect out of pure frustration. It's hard to send out applications and never even get a response. It's worse when you've taken a step backwards in what you're applying for and still don't get anywhere. My friend Stella Devine is also looking for work right now, and I can sympathise with her when she says she's considered calling on apprentice welding and junior police officer positions, thinking "How hard could that be? Probably good money in that..."

Stella writes about the need to stay calm, above all else. Fear and loathing almost never lead to good decisions (see presidential election, 2004). But when the "jobs" special section of the newspaper is too thin to make a good bootrest, when the jobs websites for your field are on the verge of folding, and when every day brings worse economic news than the day before, it's a damn hard task.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Thinking Local

In conjunction with my post last week about local bookstores, I found an article in my local alternative weekly paper about a "think local" pledge. Apparently, if you're in my area, you can go on their website and promise to spend at least $100 at local businesses this year to be eligible for prizes. The best prize you can get, though, is a strong community. There was an interesting statistic on there: for every dollar spent at a local business, 68 cents stays in the community, as opposed to 43 cents at national chain stores.

For the non-Buffalonians out there, the good news is that this is apparently a nationwide initiative, aimed at creating a 2.4 billion impact on communities around the country this Christmas. It couldn't have come at a better time, with the grim news coming out of Detroit and Wall Street over the past six weeks. I had a hard time tracking down where people can go to make the pledge, though. The best I could do was this directory of alternative newsweeklies around the country. I'll definitely be making a pledge. I encourage everyone else to do the same!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Road Trippin' Through American Memory

One of the best historical books I've ever read is Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz. I recommend it to everyone I know, and as I'm reading his new book right now, I figured I'd talk today about the book that got me interested in him.

I first noticed it in an airport bookstore and finally picked it up a couple of years later. It was much better than I'd ever imagined. Horwitz traveled through the American South to various places related to the Civil War, and also place important to race relations today. He went to a town in rural Kentucky where a white teenager had been shot and killed by a black teenager after a confrontation over the Confederate flag. He visited a woman in charge of her local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy. He went to an "Afrocentric" high school and a KKK rally. He also traveled with a hardcore Confederate reenactor to museums and historic sites, all in the attempt to learn how the Civil War had impacted modern society.

As a lifelong Northerner, the answers surprised me. I never really thought about the Civil War at all, except when I was studying it. After all, it had little affect on my own family story. I can't claim any ancestors at all who fought in it. The only branch of my family that was even here at the time was up in Maine and had recently crossed the border from Canada. The other three sides would not even arrive in the country until almost fifty years later. So, it surprised me to learn how different things were in the South, at least for some people.

The book alternates between disquieting scenes like the one in Kentucky, where more than one person quoted speaks of the Civil War as though it had happened in his or her lifetime, and scenes in the "New South" that are disquieting for other reasons. Horwitz and his re-enactor pal visit "Manasshole" together, as part of his friend's annual "Civil Wargasm" week-long road trip. While the battlefield itself is preserved, it's ringed by clogged freeways and fast-food joints. Virtually nothing of Civil-War era Atlanta remains: what didn't get burned by Sherman got bulldozed by developers. In fact, in Atlanta, the primary image of the Civil War is Gone With the Wind. Horwitz visits several people who claim to know the whereabouts of "the real Tara" and speaks with someone in tourism who tells him that she repeatedly has to answer questions such as "Where are Rhett and Scarlett buried?" (facepalm!!!) He also visits a city historian, for the record, who states that he worked with Margaret Mitchell while she was writing her book and had assisted her in her meticulous efforts to ensure that everything she wrote was fictional. She combed old city directories to ensure that she didn't accidentally use the name of a real family, and toured the countryside to ensure that all her homes and locations came from her own imagination.

Horwitz also tackles the issue of commemoration: of what is commemorated, how, and why. He visits an interesting Common Council meeting in Richmond, VA, where they are trying to decide whether to put a statue of African-American tennis legend Arthur Ashe on the Confederate-dominated Monument Avenue. The discussion seesaws back and forth, between whites who favor the idea, blacks who think Ashe would be diminished on a "promenade of losers" (as one man calls it), people who thought his statue should be placed in a black neighborhood as a source of inspriation, and others who viewed that as more segregation. He also takes in a ceremony held at Andersonville commemorating the day the prison camp administrator Henry Wirz was hanged for war crimes. The ceremony is held annually by a group that is attempting to clear Wirz's name, at least partially on the grounds that he didn't do anything the North wasn't doing too.

I went to graduate school because I wanted to help engage people in history, and I think this is part of the reason I like this book so much. Horwitz has unearthed a lot of the people who keep history alive, for better or for worse. This book gets at the root of why the study of history is so important, and what it can mean to the individual.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Dude Lit

You know I love chick lit, as sort of a "guilty pleasure." It's one of those things that's just fun, even if you know before you get the book home that the girl will get the guy and the new shoes in the end. I found on Bookchase a post about Esquire magazine's column on "75 Books every Man Should Read." I wondered why it was specific to men, as there are some damn good books on here, but I guess that probably has to do with it being a men's magazine, like "The Ten Money-Saving Tricks Every Woman Should Know" that actually work regardless of your plumbing.

You can find the article here. But I've got the list below. I bolded the ones I've read:

1. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver
2. Collected Stories of John Cheever
3. Deliverance, by James Dickey
4. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
5. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

6. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
7. The Known World, by Edward P. Jones
8. The Good War, by Studs Terkel
9. American Pastoral, by Philip Roth
10. A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, by Flannery O’Connor

11. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
12. A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter
13. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
14. Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis
15. A Sense of Where You Are, by John McPhee

16. Hell’s Angels, by Hunter S. Thompson
17. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
18. Dubliners, by James Joyce
19. Rabbit, Run, by John Updike
20. The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain

21. Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone
22. Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell
23. Legends of the Fall, by Jim Harrison
24. Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry
25. The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer

26. The Professional, by W.C. Heinz
27. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
28. Dispatches, by Michael Herr
29. Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
30. Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates

31. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
32. The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara
33. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
34. All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren
35. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey

36. Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron
37. A Fan’s Notes, by Frederick Exley
38. Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis
39. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami
40. Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brian

41. Plainsong, by Kent Haruf
42. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
43. Affliction, by Russell Banks
44. This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff
45. Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin

46. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow
47. Women, by Charles Bukowski
48. Going Native, by Stephen Wright
49. Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
50. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John LeCarré

51. The Crack-Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
52. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by George Saunders
53. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
54. The Shining, by Stephen King
55. Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson

56. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
57. Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie
58. Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges
59. The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe
60. The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford

61. American Tabloid, by James Ellroy
62. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Alex Haley
63. What It Takes, by Richard Ben Cramer
64. The Continental Op, by Dashiell Hammett
65. The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

66. So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell
67. Native Son, by Richard Wright
68. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans
69. Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner
70. The Great Bridge, by David McCullough

71. The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac
72. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
73. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
74. Underworld, by Don DeLillo
75. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

I'm not a guy, but I was surprised to see that I've only read 11 out of the 75 listed. Some of them, like Slaughterhouse Five and Affliction, seem like ones I would have read, too. I wonder about some of their choices, too: The Dharma Bums instead of On the Road? The Crack-Up instead of The Great Gatsby or This Side of Paradise? Did they do that just to be iconoclastic, or did the person who compiled the list really believe that those were better?

I should note that the list isn't ranked, too. They aren't actually trying to say that the Raymond Carver book is better than Huck Finn.But I like lists like these, even when they put me to shame. They always remind me of books I've meant to check out but never have. I've been wanting to read one of the classic Russian novels for a while now, and the list had a couple of good suggestions. A couple of years ago, I read an excellent short story about a young teacher who was doing This Boy's Life with her class, and it sounded like an engaging book. I'd forgotten all about those ideas, but this list helped bring them back to the forefront. It also gave me another idea: trying to do my own list of what I consider essential reading. Maybe tomorrow!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Books of a Feather: Feline Friends

Well, I said I had today's topic worked out and this is it. I didn't want to do it yesterday, because I'd just done the "Books of a Feather", and it's not an interesting feature if I do it constantly, every day.

I have been a cat lover literally since I was old enough to understand what a cat was. My first cat friend lived across the street from me and used to climb on the garage roof to look at me in my crib. Neither of my parents had ever had cats growing up, or had been much interested in having them as adults, but I wanted one so badly they decided to try it out. I definitely converted them, and they still have two cats that they got after my sister and I moved out. My sister has three cats, and she even fosters cats. I have two cats (whom you can visit on their Catster pages).

So, I've always been attracted to books about cats. I have three great ones for today: Cat Stories, by James Herriott; The Cat Who'll Live Forever by Peter Gethers; and My Cat Spit McGee, by Willie Morris.

James Herriott wrote a wonderful series of books about his experiences as a veterinarian in rural England. He started in medicine around the 1930s or 1940s, and retired fifty years after. It was an exciting time in medicine, and probably one of the most moving of his stories was about his first experience of the miracle of the antibiotic drugs, which were still experimental when he decided to try them as a last-ditch effort to save a flock of cattle. Herriott worked primarily with large animals, but was sometimes charged with the care of domestic cats and dogs. Cat Stories culled the best of the cat-related tales from his books and placed them in one volume.

The other two books are more biographical. In fact, I purchased My Cat Spit McGee from the biography section. It tells the tale of Morris's conversion from a lifelong cat-hater to a devoted cat person, after he marries the Cat Woman. Spit McGee was the sole survivor of his litter, born to a young cat mother who couldn't take care of her kittens properly and hid them under the foundation of the house. Spit McGee enjoyed the freedom of an outdoor life in Alabama, although he had some dangerous adventures, including a run-in with a possum and a motorcycle. Spit has a variety of feline companions that cycle through the story, cat ownership being more fluid in Morris's neck of the woods than I'm used to, I guess.

The saddest of all is The Cat Who'll Live Forever. This is the conclusion of a trilogy of books about Norton, the globe-trotting Scottish Fold. As you may have guessed from the foreboding title, Norton does not, in fact, live forever. This is the story of Norton's long illness and Gethers's dedicated effort to care for him, and ultimately, to let him go. This is not as happy a book as the other two I'm highlighting today, but it's beautiful in its own way. Gethers's dedication to Norton's comfort and happiness is inspirational, and it will help any pet owner who has been through the sad process of saying goodbye. I used to post frequently on the Craigslist pet forum and often quoted the advice from Gethers' vet: that when it's time to put your pet to sleep, you'll know.

If you think about it objectively, pet ownership is a strange thing. It's weird to take an animal into your home, when one of the original purposes of homes was to keep animals out. If it's a cat, you've most likely got a box full of excrement and what's basically expensive sand, somewhere right inside. Yet you come to care for them, and love them, and they seemingly love you back, and devote themselves to you more than any person ever would (if you go outside to take out the garbage, is your spouse waiting at the door when you come back in? if you leave your living room and go into the computer room, would your spouse wake up from a dead sleep to follow you in there and go back to sleep by you?). They also seemingly have personalities as distinct as humans (more distinct than some of them). And yet, you know right from the beginning that the pet is not going to survive you and that heartbreak is implicit in the deal. Each of these three books answers, in their own way, the question of why people do it, and what they get back.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Get Out Of Jail Free

When you're playing Monopoly and you draw one of those cards, you want to hang on to it, and use it at the right time. Today is my right time. Today is the day where I blog about having no idea what to blog about.

I'm just under the wire for today's post, because I really didn't have any good ideas. I have two books kind of half-going, but I don't like to write about what I'm reading until I'm done with it. I already did two of my features and a meme this week. I was hoping there'd be something at NaBloPoMo, but I didn't find any inspiration at all (is it me or are the groups less active this year?) And my real life is quiet right now too: no dramatic house fires, robberies or beginnings of cohabitation like last year. I could write about World of Warcraft, seeing as how the new expansion has just come out, but I don't feel like writing about that either. I was thinking about this post since last night's, and I just don't know what to do. I have a "books of a feather" for tomorrow that I don't want to do today. Just because, doing too many of them feels like cheating. And the comments here have been quiet. I keep thinking of that guy back in May who called me the rudest name in the English language, and all I can think is, "Why didn't he save that for NaBloPoMo? I could've gotten a post out of that?"

So I guess I'm appealing to you guys once again. Got any ideas for me? I have tomorrow covered, but will I be right back here Sunday night? I hope not.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Shop Smart, Shop Book-Smart: Booking Through Thursday

The question this week:

Why Buy? November 13, 2008

I’ve asked, in the past, about whether you more often buy your books, or get them from libraries. What I want to know today, is, WHY BUY?

Even if you are a die-hard fan of the public library system, I’m betting you have at least ONE permanent resident of your bookshelves in your house. I’m betting that no real book-lover can go through life without owning at least one book. So … why that one? What made you buy the books that you actually own, even though your usual preference is to borrow and return them?

If you usually buy your books, tell me why. Why buy instead of borrow? Why shell out your hard-earned dollars for something you could get for free?

Given the title of this blog, it's pretty obvious that I'm a big public library fan. They're so wonderful, I can barely believe they exist: a place where you can go and stay as long as you like, and in exchange for nothing more than a promise that you'll bring them back, take away all the books you can carry.

But sometimes I buy. I have a lot of books, actually. Whenever a favorite author comes out with a new book, that's usually a guaranteed purchase. It does happen, on occasion, that there's a book I really want to read but the library just doesn't have. I don't think any of Jen Lancaster's books are available in my library system, so I bought them. There's also the allure of a bargain: if I see a book that had interested me in the remainder section for $4, I'll usually pick it up.

Having books around makes me feel good. My parents used to tease me that I had "security books" instead of a security blanket. I rarely left the house without when when I was growing up, because you just never know. Even now, I usually bring a book when I'm going to someplace like the doctor or the car mechanic. It sucks to have to sit there and stare into space or read ten-year-old magazines, so I always bring a book. And in some situations, it's better to carry around a book that you own, like when you go to the beach, or if you want to take a bath. Owning books also guarantees you'll never be without something good to read, kind of like keeping a supply of canned goods in case there's a blizzard. If something happens and you can't get to the library, you don't want to get caught out.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Showing George Saunders Some Love

It's funny how people can influence your lives, and how the influence spreads out like ripples in a pond and continues to affect you long after you barely think of that person. In college, I had one class with Dr. Janet Groth, Magazine Article Writing. I came to like and respect her a lot and got to know her a bit after college. But she influenced my intellectual life a great deal by requiring us all to get a semester-long subscription to The New Yorker. It's been over ten years since I took her class, and in that time, I've subscribed to it on and off, but mostly on. I look forward to its arrival every week, and I bet you can guess my favorite part! It's the short story.

That was where I first heard of George Saunders. He kind of rose from being an occasional fiction submitter to writing the "Shouts and Murmurs" more regularly. I thought that was too bad, because I don't really like "Shouts and Murmurs" much, but loved his short stories. I always read them.

Saunders is excellent in finding the absurd in modern life. Sometimes, like in his novella "Bounty," he stretches that talent into the near future. Increasingly and alarmingly, he doesn't have to. I think of him every time I drive on the 33, with its huge billboards reading "Get Joint Replacement Surgery" and "The Best Stroke Care Is At Mercy." That's right out of one of his stories.

His stuff has taken on a more political bent as of late, but my favorites are the ones with ordinary people struggling to find humanity in a corporatized, bland world. The one about the professional caveman re-enactor at a failing theme park whose job is threatened by the corporate drones because of his reluctance to violate his moral code by ratting out a co-worker ("Pastoralia"). The one about the teenaged couple with brain implants, raised by a corporation to be product testers, who risk their consciousness for a chance at independent life ("Jon"). Even the one about the grandfather who makes the decision to give in to corporate coersion to give his grandson a shot at freedom of expression ("My Flamboyant Grandson").

When corporate repression isn't the theme, societal repression often is. The characters in "Winky" and "Sea Oak" had the deck stacked against them from the beginning: raised in poverty, with no real models for any type of success, and are repeating the cycle as adults. But there's a hopefulness and humanity to all of his characters. Most of them are trapped by circumstance: the narrator of "Pastoralia" has a special-needs child, and we get the impression that his caveman job was the best one he could find to keep a roof over his family's head, even if he never gets to sleep under it himself. Neil, of "Winky," has his bizarre, born-again sister permanently ensconsed in his house. And the narrator of "Sea Oak" lives in the projects with his sister, his cousin, their babies and his great-aunt, and supports them all by working as a male stripper. But they don't give up. They fight back against a repressive social structure and a bland corporatized landscape the best way they know how: by being themselves, taking joy in the little things, and moving forward inch by inch.

I love George Saunders because he can be both optimistic and cynical enough for these strange times in which we live, and I believe that literary history will judge him as one of the major voices of this era.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Celebrate Indie Bookstores, Support Your Community

I love visiting independent bookstores. I was nearby one of the major ones in my area yesterday, and was already thinking about my daily blog post, so I stopped in for help.

Going to an independent bookstore always makes me think things. Barnes and Noble and Borders may be nicer inside, and have the advantage of offering coffee, but they're also pretty sterile. If you've been inside one, you've pretty much seen them all, from New York to California and everywhere in between. My local bookstore, Talking Leaves, definitely isn't like that. They have posters on the walls for local events. They carry more free newspapers than I knew existed (we have a Marxist paper here, who knew?). The walls and counter spaces are festooned with political cartoons about freedom of speech, quotes urging the customers to fight against homogenization and the repression of liberty, and interesting photographs of the city.

The two college-aged women working there were talking and laughing and listening to Hole's Live Through This album as they cut open boxes of books. I used to listen to that same album all the time when I was in college, but it belonged to my friend Karen, and I haven't heard it since then, so it made me feel good to hear them playing it and enjoying it. The only other customer was a college-professor type straight out of Central Casting, tweed jacket with elbow patches and everything. In the middle of the store was a table of books about George Bush marked 40% off. I'm also a member of Talking Leaves, so I scored Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose's Bushwhacked for seven dollars and change. I wanted to stay longer, but they were getting ready to close, so I left.

Today, over on Bookchase, I found this post, about a very well-known independent bookstore in South Carolina that was forced to close its doors. It's a sad story and it's happening all too often. Around here, businesses are fighting back against Miracle Mile with a Buffalo First initiative. They're having an organized shopping event, and offering a coupon book for locally owned stores. Even if your city doesn't have such an organized movement, it's important to remember to take a little extra time and spend a little extra money at a locally owned business. They offer different products, better service, and an actual experience.

I find it especially nice at Christmas time. It's much less stressful than battling thousands of irritated shoppers in the big-box stores, and then battling them again on the drive home. It's more fun than cruising to some internet site and point-clicking your way to a gift that you pray arrives on time, in one piece, as ordered. The staff is usually less harried because they're not dealing with thousands of angry people a day while wondering what will become of their jobs on January 2nd. So I join Sam Houston in encouraging you to support your local independent bookstore, and other local retailers -- or lose them.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Another Intriguing Protagonist

I just finished the hot book of 2003, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon. I'm late to the party, I know, but I enjoyed the read anyway.

Like Wallflower, the real driving force of the story is its narrator, 15-year-old Christopher Boone. Christopher is autistic and a mathematical savant. While it's not specified in the book, his condition seems remarkably similar to they way John Elder Robison described Asperger's Syndrome in his memoir that I read a few weeks ago. Like Robison, Christopher has a very hard time understanding emotions and tries to apply logic to situations where logic doesn't really apply. Robison talked about how many people with Asperger's learn to blend in. Christopher hasn't really learned that yet. He's prone to start screaming or groaning when he's upset and has extreme reactions to being crowded or touched in any way.

And there's a lot to upset him in this book. It starts off very badly, when he finds the neighbor's dog impaled on a garden fork. He gets blamed for it at first, but then decides he is going to solve the mystery of who killed the dog, Sherlock Holmes-style (he likes the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, as well as math and science). His investigation ultimately winds up leading to his own doorstep, however, and into many basic assumptions about his family that he'd never questioned.

This is another relatively short book, but it's also well-decorated, having won two major awards shortly after its publication. It's both fascinating and heartbreaking to watch Christopher try to negotiate the world of the neurotypical. He has a lot of trouble just understanding people, and common turns of phrase like "I've had a bear of a day" baffle him. He also can't lie, which puts him at a great disadvantage in certain situations.

It made me sad how often people called him a freak. It also saddened me to see that his local school system apparently had no way to deal with him: his father had to fight hard in order for him to be allowed to take his A-levels (college qualifying exams; I think I forgot to mention that the story is set in England) and he was placed in a Special Needs class with kids who played with their own poo.

But despite the often cruel ways of the world and even of his own family, the book is not a sad book. Christopher ultimately prevails, and emerges feeling more confident about how far his abilites will take him. Another thing that John Elder Robison talked about was the importance of focusing on what kids with Asperger's can do, and how crucial it was not to shove can't can't can't in their faces all the time. As awful as the results of Christopher's investigation are (and it is a mystery, so I can't reveal too much about them), the fact that he solved the mystery, took his maths A-level and already accomplished more than he expected made him feel optimistic about the future, and about the day when he finds his place in the world.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Books of a Feather: Workin' 9 to 5

I couldn't think of anything at all to write about today, and in the car on the way to Wendy's, I asked my boyfriend for a "Books of a Feather" theme. He had two awesome ones: books written in or about the 1920s or books about bunnies (actually, he said children's books, but I turned it into bunny books after he cited The Velveteen Rabbit and Watership Down.) Unfortunately, I couldn't think of books for either, not ones that I was familiar with enough to write about that way.

So I came home, and stared at my shelves. I remembered hearing that Studs Terkel had died last week, and I thought of the first book I'd ever read by him, Working. Then I knew I had my theme.

So, I'll start with that one. The premise of the book is exceedingly simple. In the 1970s, Terkel interviewed people who held a wide variety of jobs, and wrote down what they told him. In each case, he opened the dialogue by simply asking them to explain what they did, and how they got into it. He got some very surprising answers, and the book remains a favorite of mine because of that. He met a nurse's aide who hates people. He met a grocery store clerk who loved her job so much that she didn't even like to take vacation time, and a dentist who couldn't wait to retire. His interview with a model made it seem like the least glamorous job on the planet (taking public transportation while carrying half the clothes you own? Aw, fun!). His interview with an industrial spy made that job sound more intriguing and stimulating than James Bond's work (the man's profession was to pretend to be an ordinary employee at places that suspected worker theft). Many of the jobs don't even exist anymore, although not many of the ones who saw ahead to their own obsolescence (like the bathroom attendants).

The other two books I picked for this theme deal with the transient nature of work today. The Working Stiff's Manifesto is by Iain Levison, a former English major who had held over 30 jobs by the time he was in his late 20s. Levison's odyssey in this book takes him from a high-end grocery store in New York City, to a job with a friend driving a moving van, to several commercial fishing establishments in Alaska. Every job he holds is basically a shit job. He talks about running across a water-filtration scam, and the other, more subtle 'scams' that lie in wait within many legitimate jobs. For example, he gets fired from the fish market two days short of when his health insurance would have kicked in, for no reason that he can determine. He also gets conned into a managerial position at a chain restaurant, where he's immediately put on salary and required to work almost 80 hours a week, averaging out to less than minimum wage.

Bitter is the New Black, by Jennifer Lancaster, is not such a tale. Lancaster had a great job as a vice-president, and was well-paid, well-liked and well-respected. The bottom dropped out for her the week of September 11th. She lost her job at the worst possible time and had to scrape for another one. Despite being educated, skilled and connected, she actually never did find another job in her field, and became a writer instead. She, too, was the victim of a couple of scams. She was up for a position at a start-up, where they asked her to put together a sample business plan and sales presentation as part of her interview. She dutifully did her homework, and as she was presenting it to the panel that interviewed her, it began to dawn on her that something was wrong, that they were all a little too interested in what she had to say...and predictably, she never heard from them again.

The prime difference between the two authors is that Lancaster seems to have much more knowlege of the way the world works, and much more drive and ambition than Levison, who makes the same mistakes over and over again. Sometimes, you want to shake him and scream: "You accepted a job moving furniture up and down the stairs and you're surprised it's shitty? Really?" Lancaster's tale shows that office jobs are far from idyllic (she's employed for approximately 1/3 of the book), but cutting fish, gutting fish, and moving sofas are not what anyone's dreams are made of, really. But what prevents either story from being mere complaining is the humor.

This seems to be a universal among work tales. Most people feel that work is sort of funny. Terkel's book was full of people's strange and humorous tales from their jobs. People loved describing their craziest co-worker or their nuttiest customer to him. But the main thing I took from Terkel's book is that job satisfaction seems to depend more upon the individual than the job. I often think of that grocery store clerk. She sounded happiest of everyone in the book, and he interviewed Stanley Cup winners, doctors, lawyers, writers, all kinds of people you would expect loved their jobs. Levison's biggest problem, it seemed to me, was that he was a malcontent. He always wanted more, and there was no way for him to get it.

Lancaster, in contrast to him, had it all. Her life story was particularly galling to the reader, because she didn't so much blow it as she had it taken away from her. And then, she was down the rabbit hole. Her experience kept her from getting lower-end jobs. When she went on interviews, she was up against hundreds like herself. Her former connections didn't want anything to do with her because they were afraid of it happening to them. It was a mystifying case of a bad thing happening to someone who didn't deserve it, subtitles to the contrary.

Terkel's book is more hopeful than either Lancaster's or Levison's. Both of theirs showcase individual negative experiences in the workplace. But Terkel also shows you the deeply satisfied grocery store clerk, industrial spy, and piano tuner (that was a neat one too). He also talks about people who got out of bad situations (the newspaper saleswoman) or people who managed to make something out of a bad situation (the suitcase felter, who was also the union president and newsletter-writer and considered her suitcase factory co-workers as good as family). His book will leave you feeling much more hopeful than the other two. However, in fairness to them, their books are much funnier.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


The Central Library has started maintaining several displays with titles like "What We're Reading" or "Staff Picks." I've often wondered how that works in corporate bookstores, whether the staff can truly put out whatever they want, or if they're required to pick from a list, or if they get any actual say at all. But I figure the public library is probably reasonably honest, and the last time I was there, I grabbed a small, chartreuse paperback titled The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. I'd heard of the book somewhere before. A quick Google search revealed where: on the Banned Books list.

I started and finished it last night. It's only about 200 pages. When I turned it over, I noticed that the publisher was MTV Books, and I thought, "Oh, fuck." I've read two MTV Books before and neither one was very good. This one redeemed the publishing house for me.

The book is a year in the life of a fifteen-year-old boy. Charlie is writing to someone who he doesn't know, and we never really learn where he got the address or heard of the person. He tells the person all about his life and his friends. The blurbs on the back of this book pissed me off, like they usually do. At least they didn't say the book was funny, but I thought that they trivialized it by calling Charlie's story "teen angst." Charlie deals with some real adult problems: his friend's suicide, his sister's abortion, his best friend getting beaten up by a guy who used to be his lover, and it makes him grow up a lot.

He's also trying to figure out who he is and where he fits in. Those parts are beautiful to watch. He makes friends, accidentally, with a couple of seniors who sort of "adopt" him. Patrick and Sam (Samantha) are into independent music and play in the Rocky Horror Picture Show every Friday night, and it's cool to see Charlie's whole world open up as he becomes closer to them. I liked Charlie because he didn't seem jaded. There was sort of a pure innocence about him. He does things like buy a copy of all of his favorite books for Patrick and Sam, with a note saying that he wanted them to have them because they were his favorite people. In his letters, he mentions crying a lot, and talks about how much he loves his friends and family.

Without his voice, it would have been a very heavy, overdone book. I mean, he hits pretty much all of the stereotypical teen "issues:" suicide, homosexuality, drugs, rape, abortion, and teen domestic violence, as well as the more day-to-day stuff like friend drama and dealing with an unrequieted love. And the book's only 200 pages long. I still think the ending went wrong. He should have just let the arc of the story come to its rest, rather than throwing in something new and shocking in the last ten pages.

But even so, I definitely recomend this one. Chbosky has managed to capture the feel of what it's like to be a teenager. It takes you back to the first time you ever sat in an all-night restaurant with your friends drinking coffee until 2AM, or just drove around with them listening to music on the car stereo. In a few years, Charlie will find all of that stuff boring. He'll have more options open to him and want more action than IHOP has to offer. Chbosky catches him at that moment when it's all new, and the book crackles with that energy, which carries it through what could have easily become a swamp of "issues".

Friday, November 7, 2008

Books in Season: Some Ideas for What to Read When

Some books just seem to fit better with certain times of year than others. Much like how you don't even want to see that chenille sweater in July, or how your favorite pair of sandals looks alien and suspect in February, some books just have a better effect when they're "in season." Here are some of mine, starting with this time of year and working around the calendar.


This is the time of year when you're starting to turn your attention back inside. The temperature is dropping along with the leaves, and it's a good time for books about family and home. While Alice Munro is good any time of year, a lot of her stories are particularly wonderful in the fall.


My traditional Thanksgiving-week read has been Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo. The story is set between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve. With the economic downturn this year, it might resonate in particular with people who don't feel like they have a whole lot to be thankful for, since most of the characters in the story feel the same way. The main character is forced back to work on a bad knee at sixty, against the advice of everyone who knows him. His boss has his cheating ways catch up with him and winds up sleeping on Sully's couch. Sully's landlady continues to battle aging and loneliness and her concern both over her adult son and over the way she feels towards him. Sully's son has his marriage, his affair and his career blow up in the space of less than a month. You might read it and sympathize with the characters, or be thankful you're not as bad off as most of them.

For nonfiction, this is also a good time for some colonial history, with the pilgrims and all. I feel like a hypocrite suggesting A Little Commonwealth by John Demos, as it's been TBR for so long, but it is a classic in the genre. I started Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Good Wives and the new Tony Horowitz book, both about colonial America, and I'll let you know how they turn out. I can definitely vouch for The Island at the Center of The World, however.


Does anyone else watch the made-for-TV production of A Child's Christmas in Wales every year? It stars Denholm Elliot in this wonderful adaptation of the Dylan Thomas short story. My parents have it on VHS, and I'm not sure if it's ever been released on DVD or even if it's still shown on TV, but it's wonderful. It is a virtual word-for-word translation of this beautiful and simple short story. I reccommend the both the short story and the TV version, if you can find it.

Of course, if you want bloodier and more dramatic fare, people tend to forget and it's easy to miss, but Hamlet is technically a Christmas story.


In New York State, where winter is long, cold and dark, it's an excellent time of year for projects. If you've always wanted to read War and Peace, well, what else is there to do? It's not like you'll be going to the beach anytime soon. If there's a classic you've missed somewhere along the way, it's a good time to pick it up. I read Charles Dickens' Great Expectations a few winters ago and was surprised by its humor and accessibility. I liked it so much that I started David Copperfield but wound up abandoning it for some stupid reason. This winter, I think I'll pick it up again.

There are plenty of more modern projects out there, too. I just wrote about Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs. Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter and Jeffery Eugenides' Middlesex are two other good winter projects.

Winter is also a good time to pick up a series. It gives you something to look forward to other than a 3:00 sunset and the next day the temperature's projected to rise above freezing. Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series is one of the most inventive and funny things I've ever read. Don't be put off by the fact that it's in the "mysteries" department. Thursday Next is a detective who works with and inside of books. Her mentor is Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, who wears sneakers with her tattered wedding dress and likes to race cars in her spare time. One of the books has her spending time with Hamlet, who was quite excited to learn that Mel Gibson had played him in a movie version and wanted to know if Danny Glover played Horatio. It's perfect for lifting the spirits of a book lover during the winter.


I'm not terribly religious and never have been. To me, Easter means dyed eggs and ham and a new dress. But if you're seeking a spiritual dimension to this time of year, any of Anne Lamott's books on religion do it well. They're a fresh antidote to the smug, self-righteous brand of Christianity that's been on display everywhere in this country for the past few decades, the brand that tries to ban sex education and Harry Potter books from the schools. Anne Lamott presents herself as a deeply flawed person who found meaning and direction in faith. She lives the teachings of Christianity, volunteering at prisons and soup kitchens. But she swears, she loses her patience, she continues to struggle to stay sober, and she chronicles all of that too. She never tries to shove things down the reader's throat, or present religion as the cure to ills, she just says "This is what has helped me."


Epic fail. I've been sitting here for a while trying to think of a good spring book. It should be easy, given that this is the time of year associated with optimism and renewal. But dammit, I just can't think of a single book that seems to resonate more this time of year. If anyone has any, feel free to pipe up!


Ahhhhhh...back in easy territory. Warm weather, long nights, hands-down the favorite time of year for most. While the easy answer would be anything chick lit, I do have a couple of other portable reccomendations. Two classics, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Jack Kerouac's On The Road, are in season this time of year. The Great Gatsby also works for a Labor Day weekend read, as that's where the arc of the story ends. Less portable, but also in season, is Ross Lockridge Jr.'s epic novel Raintree County. It was his only book, as he killed himself shortly after it was published. At 1000+ pages, it would seem more of a winter read than a summer read, but the feel is off. This is decidedly a summer story, imbued with fireflies and lemonade and fireworks.

If you want to keep it light, anything by Jennifer Weiner is good. I'd also reccommend a good, trashy biography of someone famous. And none that I've read can hold a candle to Motley Crue's The Dirt. It doesn't matter if you don't even like their music. It's understandable, their music was never very good. But if you like reading about sex, drugs, alcohol and band drama, there's just no way to top this book. Warning: not for the easily offended. Having said that, if you find nothing about this book offensive, you should seek help immediately. But if you don't want to go the sex, drugs, and rock n roll route, Lillian Gish's A Life on Stage and Screen is fascinating for a different reason. Gish was the first famous screen actress and helped build the industry. If you're looking for sex, drugs and hissy fits, you won't find them here. Gish seemingly led as peaceful and happy a life as a celebrity can (and if she didn't, she wasn't telling). But it's an interesting story of the evolution of movies from the inside, and also a different take on the racist film The Birth of a Nation.


I've saved the best for last. Obviously, at this time of year you can't go wrong with a good Edgar Allen Poe short story. My recent read The Historian would work well as both a Halloween and a winter read. But there's one book that I'm convinced is actually haunted, that I probably shouldn't mention at this time of year.

The Devil in the White City was the "It" book a few years back. Written by Erik Larson, it told overlapping stories of the organization and presentation of the Chicago World's Fair, and the tale of the remarkably evil H.H. Holmes. Holmes is a killer straight out of a horror movie. In anticipation of the World's Fair, he built a large a lure for his victims. It was rife with secret passages and had vats of acid in the basement for easy disposal of the bodies afterwards.

A lot of strange little incidents happened to me while I was reading this book. I heard something in the attic over my office when no work was going on in the building, and I heard something trying to get into my apartment, but found no evidence of it upon investigating. And, one night, I felt something drawing the covers away from my face at night. I could also feel something standing over me. If you decide to read this book, read it with some kind of protection. And I'd reccomend staying away from it during Halloween. After all, why tempt fate?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Gift That Keeps on Giving

This week's question:

Presents! November 6, 2008
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 1:20 am

So, it’s my birthday today. (Please, no applause.) But it’s inspiring today’s question–

What, if any, memorable or special book have you ever gotten as a present? Birthday or otherwise. What made it so notable? The person who gave it? The book itself? The “gift aura?”

I was pleased when I realized it was Thursday, as I had no idea what I was going to write about today. But I like this question a lot.

I have received probably hundreds of books as gifts over the course of my lifetime. My Aunt Barbara is a retired reading teacher and currently active on the board of her local library, so growing up, I could always count on a book from her at Christmas. My parents and sister usually give me books for Christmas and my birthday. My boyfriend has gotten my books. I've received some great books from friends, things that I never would've read otherwise like A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and (cough) Dante's Inferno (I did get about halfway through and liked it a lot, but something which I can't even recall anymore came up).

However, I'd have to say that the most meaningful gift was Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends, in hardcover. My grandfather died shortly before I turned six. Of his four grandchildren, I'm the only one with any clear memories of him at all: my sister wasn't even three yet, my cousin was still a baby, and my other cousin wasn't born yet. I mostly remember things like him throwing a ball over the roof of his house (which never failed to impress me), his typical greeting to me ("Here Comes Trouble!") and his plaid upholstered rocking chair. But I'm told that he loved baseball and reading, and that he always had three or four books going at once.

I was also told that he intended to buy me Where the Sidewalk Ends for my birthday that year. After he died, they found a couple of books that he'd bought recently and never had a chance to read. My parents used the store credit to pick up Where the Sidewalk Ends for me, as a sort of last gift from him. Since I wasn't even six yet, my memory on some of these points may be faulty. I could even have the story all wrong: maybe he already had the book, and they just gave it to me, maybe the money came from somewhere else, I'm not really sure, but that's how I remember it. I also remember it as being the first "nice" book that I had. This was no board book, no paperback. This was even nicer than the "Childhood of Famous Americans" series that I liked in the local library (my father the history teacher hated this series, as it consistently stopped short of the part where the Americans actually became famous. So I would wind up knowing all about the farm on which, say, Babe Didrickson grew up, or the brother she had that died...but no idea why I should care.) No, my copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends had a hard cover and a glossy jacket and looked more like an adult book than a kid's book.

I still have my copy of it at home. I have a lot of special books: the one from the collection of my graduate-school professor that died, the one that the head of the drama club gave me before my last play with him, and some of the James Herriot books that my mother got as a special gift for the same grandfather that gave me Where the Sidewalk Ends. But I'd say that one is the most special to me.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Congratulations Obama, Congratulations America

It was definitely an exciting night. I watched the election returns with my parents, and after Obama's victory speech we set off some fireworks outside. It was such a hopeful and exciting feeling to see him elected, and helped erase some of the negativity of the last eight years. I think he'll bring the right attitude and image to the White House, and I'm glad to see that reason prevailed over fear tactics.

By the way, the amazing pciture above was taken on a beach in Puri, India and is part of a photo essay depicting celebrations of Obama's election all over the world. You can see more of them
here. It's a Turkish news website, part of The photo essay is great, I reccomend you take a look! We'll be back to books tomorrow, especially since it's Booking Through Thursday (why do I get the feeling I'll be looking forward to that day every week for the rest of the month?).

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


The day is upon us Americans. It's kind of surreal, because it feels like the election's been going on for almost two years now, but in less than four hours, the polls will close. That gives you four hours to go vote, if you haven't done so already.

Obviously, from my endorsement a few weeks ago, you probably know who I'm hoping you'll vote for. But at the very least, if you vote for McCain or a third party candidate, I'm begging you to do so because you think they're the best choice, not because you believed their lies about Obama being some sort of Muslim Arab Commie Terrorist. In the final few weeks of the campaign, the bullshit was flying so thick and fast that not even the 24-hour news networks, with their massive shovels, could keep up with it. They've counted on people to be stupid and scared like they always do. Don't let it work on you. Make the best, most well-informed choice you can.

And if you've already done so, here is an old YouTube Eminem video from the last election for your enjoyment.


Monday, November 3, 2008

A New Feature: Books of a Feather: College

I've had this idea for a while now, but I've kind of been saving it for NaBloPoMo, when I'd really need it. The idea is that I take a theme (hopefully, ultimately one a reader suggest, but for now one I've just made up) and I talk about a bunch of books or short stories related to that theme.

As you may have guessed from the title of this post, my first theme is "college". The three books I picked are My Name is Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe; Everything Looks Impressive by Hugh Kennedy; and The Secret History by Donna Tarrt.

All three depict real colleges, but only one comes out and says so. Everything Looks Impressive is set at Yale, and tells the story of Alex, a young man from a lower-middle-class family who is living his dream there on a scholarship. Yet, he finds it pretty socially challenging. His roommates (they stuck him in a suite) are not so much living a dream as fulfilling a destiny. Alex faces many embarrassing financial moments, where he's expected to return the expensive favors his roommates do for him ("Hey, it's nothing," they say after paying a $500 tab, "you can get it next time!"). He's not as hip and trendy as most of the other students, either. The only person he truly manages to connect with is Jill, a senior and feminist who flirts aggressively with him, yet has a female lover. When she dies in an ugly gay-bashing incident that Alex suspects his roommate my have participated in, it messes up his already fragile grip on the social scene at Yale.

The Secret History and Charlotte, on the other hand, go out of their way to disguise their true setting. Hampden College, of The Secret History, is obviously Bennington College, with its rural Vermont locale, its liberal arts curriculum and its hefty price tag. The true locale of Charlotte was a bit more difficult to pin down, but I believe it to be Duke University, strong on academics, athletics, and Greek life, and founded by an heiress just as Charlotte's Dupont is, although Dupont is somewhere in the Northeast.

Of the three books, Charlotte and Everything Looks Impressive are the most similar, dealing with the disillusionment of a bright but poor young student. Both, too, are as much a chronicle of the times as of the lives of the people in the story. Alex's tale was set and published in the late 1980s, and there are ample references to 80s music and fashion, to the drugs and cars popular at the time. Charlotte's tale came out in 2004 and the references are even more amped up. Diesel Jeans, in particular, got such freqent mention that it started to seem like product placement. There are also some references to academic fashion, and fashion of belief. For Alex, the arbiters of cool on the campus dress in all black and throw cross-dressing balls or declare their lives art projects and invite the whole campus to come spy on them. For Charlotte, the arbiters of cool are the ultra-liberal editors of the school paper, who draw cartoons they believe to be edgy and see themselves as the only ones there to learn.

The Secret History, on the other hand, places academics at the center of the novel (imagine that). Richard signs up for Greek on a whim, and becomes part of an elite classics clique, who take all of their coursework from the same professor and generally hold themselves aloof from the rest of Hampden College. It is their immersion in their academics that leads to the explosive events of the novel, as they attempt to hold a Greek bacchanal. The attempt leads ultimately to the group murdering one of their own, and getting away with it in only the legal sense. Of the three, it's the strangest and the best. The characters are the most vividly drawn, the moral dilemmas they face the most thought-provoking.

What I find striking about all three books, though, is that they're clearly not written for people who are in college. In fact, it seems that of all the demographic groups out there, only the elderly are more devoid of a genre aimed at them. There are lots of books for young children, intermediate-grade children, junior high and high school students. They pick back up in the "chick lit" aimed at women in their twenties and early thirties (although I'm sure women of all ages read them too). For men of that age, there is some "dude lit" out there, books full of very technical explanations of things blowing up. And of course, there's also the stuff a cut above that either gender could enjoy, that would carry you for most of your life.

But the college books seem to be more for people who are out of college. Charlotte, to me, was particularly laughable. She was absolutely shocked, SHOCKED that her fellow unmarried students were having sex and drinking. Even after seeing it happen in front of her, repeatedly, she was still shocked. Didn't this girl ever watch a movie, or see a magazine? It wore off, although I did feel he got some details right. I, too, had "friends" like Bettina and Mimi, where the "friendship" was essentially based on having met during orientation and not knowing anyone else. They fell apart pretty rapidly, though, whereas Charlotte kept hers through most of the book. Maybe my college was different, but I have no memory of any sort of elite group that everyone wanted to be in like there was at Dupont.

In fact, of the three books, none of them squares with my own experience. All three were based on freshman alienation. At my school, I didn't meet many people who had a hard time adjusting, and I didn't myself. I found the social groups to be pretty fluid, although there were definite cliques. And most of the people worked at their classes. It wasn't "uncool" to go to the library. If you had to study, you said so, unlike the frat boys and b-ballers in Charlotte, who had to lie. I guess in a weird way, excpet for the murder, The Secret History was the closest to what I experienced in college: a vibrant, fluid party scene (there were no "right ones" at my school, the right one was whichever one had the most beer and the best music); intense, tight-knit friendships (again, without the murder: I want to emphasize this), and thought-provoking classes that we worked hard at. But none of them really captured it, and would probably be laughed at by most people who were in college. I look forward to a college novel for college students. If anyone knows one, I'd like to hear about it.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Long Wait, A Big Reward

As you can see from the sidebar, Richard Russo is one of my favorite writers. I've been wanting to read his new book, Bridge of Sighs, ever since I heard about it. I finally managed to snag it this past trip to the library, and just finished it. It was worth the wait.

This is another one of his books set in upstate New York. Two of his previous books were set in Mohawk, NY (one of them was even titled after that town), one in Pennsylvania, and one in Maine. Nobody's Fool was set in the fictional upstate town North Bath, and I made a game of trying to figure out which real town it corresponds to. I decided that geographically, it's Ballston Spa: about ten minutes south of the much more prosperous Saratoga Springs and within an easy half-hour drive of both Albany and Lake George as the book specifies, but that Russo was also inspired by the abandoned grand bath resorts of Sharon Springs, between Amsterdam and Utica. I haven't made up my mind where Thomaston is yet, although based on the presence of the tannery and the river, I'm going to guess it's Gloversville. Since I know the state well, this is part of the fun of the books for me, the shock of recognition that someone else knows of the same small towns as I do. Near the end of the book, they referenced the museum where a friend of mine works, and I enjoyed the thought that people all over the country will read mention of it.

As I said yesterday, the book is slow to start. On the surface, our first narrator Lou (or Lucy, as he's often called) couldn't be more ordinary or boring. Lives in the same small town in which he grew up, married to his high school sweetheart, running the family business, along with his adult son and daughter-in-law. But in Richard Russo's books, things are never quite what they appear. The story is not just of Lou, but of Bobby, with whom he had a complex, one-sided friendship. Lou is telling his life story, with Bobby and his wife Sarah interjecting their points of view intermittently.

The story is rich with what I'd call realistic nostalgia. Lou, at 60, has clearly never really gotten over the death of his father decades earlier. The passages about Big Lou, a man simple and sweet in his optimism and faith in humanity, are glowing with joy and longing. But all the bad stuff is there too: the poverty, the strict social stratification of Thomaston, the ugly, violent relationship between Bobby's parents that was mirrored in countless homes around town. Perhaps the best example of this is Lou's recollection of the YMCA dances all the junior-high kids attended. In his first description of them, the poor, tough boys from the West End were too cool to show up much before the dance was almost over, preferring to do their own thing until it was time to exhibit their coolness before the rest of the kids, who just liked to pretend. Several chapters later, he acknowleges that coolness had nothing to do with it, that they couldn't pay to get in and hung around outside until the cash boxes were put away and the dance almost over, even though he still remembers them as cool and tough.

Another thing about this book that I liked is that it's the story of a town as well as of the people in it. The fate of Thomaston mirrors that of many upstate New York communities. Even those, like myself, too young to remember it can't help but feel sad as they drive through towns like Schenectady and Utica and notice how you could tell it used to be really nice. The Thomaston of Lou's youth is one of the days when the factories were still open and there was still a good part of town, and more of the town's residents were making something of their lives than weren't. The present-day Thomaston is the "after" one that I recognize, after the cancer rates rose and the factories pulled out and Victorian mansions with stained-glass windows and hardwood floors sit on the market at $15,000 for years. Sadly, that could describe many upstate New York communities.

This is a rather long book (500+ pages) and would make an excellent winter project. In almost any book of that length, there are things that the story could have done without, and this one is no exception. The racial subplot stands out in my mind. The ending, where the decades-old pent-up attraction between Bobby and Sarah fizzles before the cork is even let out, was also somewhat of a disappointment. But all in all, it was an excellent read and will probably become one of my favorite Richard Russo books.