Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fearful is Right!

Image Courtesy of

After the popularity of The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger's next novel was hotly anticipated by many. I went into it knowing nothing more about it than what The New Yorker had to say. I finished it last night and am still not sure what to think.

I may have been my own worst enemy in reading this book, which is about two sets of twins. I had a hard time getting a handle on the older twin, Elspeth, whose death sets in motion the events of the book. Elspeth was a rare book dealer who lived in London. Because of these facts, and her name, I pictured her as an old woman. Yet, she had a lover, a fondness for spiky-heeled shoes, and a twin whose own twin daughters are 20.

I also had a hard time getting a handle on the younger twins, Julia and Valentina. I kept picturing a set of twins I saw on that show, "Intervention." Those twins (one of whom was also called Julia) had a bizarre, unhealthy dependence on one another and a serious shared eating disorder. They had dropped out of college and spent all of their time hanging out together, sleeping in the same bed, eating the exact same number of calories and moving the same amount of steps. Setting aside the eating disorder, Julia and Valentina seemed to me to have a similarly unhealthy relationship. Julia was the "dominant" twin who made all of the decisions. Valentina merely goes along with them, always.

Elspeth, for reasons never explained, decides to leave all of her worldly possessions to her nieces, who have never met her. Elspeth and her twin, Edie, parted ways over 20 years ago when Edie stole her fiance and moved to America with him. There are strings attached to Elspeth's mysterious gift: the girls have to live in her flat for one year, and their parents aren't allowed to set foot inside of it.

The girls decide to go. There, they meet Elspeth's lover, Robert, who's writing a dissertation on the famous Highgate Cemetery nearby. They also meet Martin, who suffers from severe OCD and sets crossword puzzles. I thought the book started to get creepy here, when Valentina and Robert start to become attracted to one another (especially the scene where Valentina shows up for a date dressed in Elspeth's clothes) and Julia and Martin also develop an attachment, despite the fact that Martin has a son Julia's age and is still devoted to the wife who left him earlier that year.

The book takes a bizarre turn when Elspeth explodes back into the story, as a ghost. Of all the visions of the afterlife I've ever read about, Niffenegger's has to be the most depressing. Elspeth is trapped in her old flat, but powerless at first to do much of anything. With no body, she can't read books, watch TV, or engage in any other diversion. As the book goes one, she gets more powerful, able to write messages in the dust and engage in using a Ouija board. Many writers throughout human history have imagined the afterlife to be beautiful or terrifying. It's a bit depressing to see it represented mostly like being stuck in a waiting room for all eternity.

It just gets weirder from there, though. I won't say too much more about the plot for fear of spoiling it for anyone who wants to read the book. I'm still not sure how I felt about it. The reviews on are very mixed and seem to be written mostly by people who enjoyed her first book. Many felt confused or gypped by the ending, and I guess I did too.

Although I didn't hate the book, I can't entirely side with those who found it to be wonderful. The first half of it really dragged. The second half was creepy, and not in a good way. It had a lot of unpleasant elements, but they weren't unpleasant in any interesting or poignant way. They didn't challenge you like Lolita or make you feel deeply like The Memory of Running. They were just garden-variety unpleasant, like mold on bread or a bald dude in a thong or something. It's certainly an unusual book, but I had such a hard time buying into it that I guess I can't really reccomend it, although it did instill in me a desire to return to London to tour Highgate Cemetery.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Lisa Jewell: Why I Love Her

In the shower, I was reflecting on my promised "Year End Review" post. I didn't want a mere list of the ones I really liked and disliked, so I was trying to make up categories. Funniest. Most engrossing. Stuff like that. For my best new-to-me author, I decided it had to be Lisa Jewell, and that got me thinking as to why.

My first encounter with Lisa Jewell was One-Hit Wonder, many years ago. I came across another one of her books earlier this year, her new one, in fact, and started off reading the rest of them.

They're not terribly original in plot. Many of them are a variation on the standard twisted romance that people like Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts have built film careers on. But the characters are stand-outs. They're always interesting people, with a strong point of view. You root for them, you get to know them, you ultimately rejoice in seeing them walk happily off into the sunset of their own making.

But another reason I really like Lisa Jewell is that her characters are in sync with me, and the point in my life that I'm at. I'm too old to relate to the young women in The Devil Wears Prada and their ilk. But I'm not really interested yet in reading books about women having families and all settled down. That's not me yet, either. I always thought it would be. It is a lot of my Facebook friends. Whenever I log on, I see tons of status updates about people's babies and home renovation projects. Over the summer, one woman that I went to high school with posted pictures of an obviously professionally landscaped garden at her home. I'm still renting, still figuring out what I want.

Jewell's characters are, too. Maybe, like Siobhan of Ralph's Party, their promising twenties have fizzled somewhat: she was laid off from her job at a fashion college and never found another one, unsure of what sort of work she might be suited for, unable by biology to simply become a stay-at-home mom, and unclear as to what was next for her. Or maybe, like Joy and Vince of their self-titled novel or Tony of Friend of the Family, they have whole unsuccessful lives behind them already. Perhaps, like Dig and Deen of Thirtynothing, Toby of Roomates Wanted, or Sean of Friend of the Family, they're just merely slower bloomers, still living the same lifestyle they led right out of college except maybe with a tad more money.

But still, it's neat to see them undertake their journeys towards the rest of their lives. It's nice to get the message that people don't magically "settle" at a certain age, and that there's nothing necessarily wrong with you if you don't have it figured out yet when all of your friends are married with kids, homes and careers. It's nice to know that there are other people out there wrestling with the questions of who they are and how much of the stereotypical white-picket-fencce lifestyle they want for themselves, if any. Even if those people are fictional.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Like, OMG! Sweet Valley High Comes to the Silver Screen

So, I guess I tend to live under a rock a bit. In the break room at my *new job* are old Entertainment Weekly magazines. I picked up one from September, and fucking hell, I actually learned something from it. Diablo Cody, of "Juno" fame, has acquired the rights to film the Sweet Valley High series by Francine Pascal.

Like all good children of the 80s, I read these books. Who didn't? As Cody pointed out in her article, it had all the elements. Warm California climate, with the movie-star glamour of California, too. Identical twins, which always seem to fascinate kids for some reason. But the main point she hit on was that the books were about high school students.

I'll be honest, I can't recall the books very clearly in terms of plot or anything. Elizabeth was the smart, goody-two-shoes one who wrote the gossip column for the school paper. Jessica was the bad one, although I'm not sure why. She had glamourous, bitchy friends. It was implied that she was slutty and bitchy, too, although you didn't see a whole lot of that from her. But I don't think that these books were targeted as Jessica and Elizabeth's age peers. Rather, they were for little girls that wanted to be grown up, and to be seen as grown up. By the time you were Jessica and Elizabeth's age, you'd realize just how unglamorous high school can be. Not all of your friends will have Porsches or be cheerleaders.

It makes me wonder, too, who will see this movie and how Cody will pull it off. To me, the most obvious audience is women my age, who remember the books. But let's be honest: won't it be more of a guilty pleasure for most of us than a movie we sincerely want to see? Are we supposed to be taking our daughters? Are tweens supposed to want to go alone? And, do tweens even know Sweet Valley High? I tried to find out more information about the series on the web. I turned up the most complete wikipedia article you'd ever want to see (OMG, remember when Regina Morrow died of a coke overdose? So sad.) I found numerous fan sites devoted to cataloging all things Sweet Valley (there were at least seven different series, including a university one). I learned that during the 90s, someone had made a stab at producing a television show for a couple of seasons. I failed to turn up the one piece of information that I wanted: whether these books are still being churned out, and if not, when they stopped.

Will I go see this movie? Probably not. But when it comes to RedBox, I'll definitely be there!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Need for Speed: Booking through...errr, Sunday

It was a pretty rough week, and this Thursday was the worst day of all. I was completely worn out by the time I made it home from work, and I think I went to bed an hour and a half later without even making my lunch for the next day. I just looked at this week's BTT, and it's a weird one:

Speed December 17, 2009
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 12:30 pm

Suggested by Barbara H:

What do you think of speed-reading? Is it a good way to get through a lot of books, or does the speed-reader miss depth and nuance? Do you speed-read? Is some material better suited to speed-reading than others?

I'm not really sure what they mean by "speed reading." Is it similar to skimming a book, or do they just mean going as fast as possible? And not really knowing what it is, I guess I'm a little unsure as to whether I do it or not. Some books I do read faster than others. When I was reading The Thirteenth Tale earlier this year, I couldn't put it down. I kept pushing and pushing, staying up late to see what happened next. When I absolutely had to go do something else, I just looked forward to getting back to the book. But I wouldn't say I "speed-read" the book.

And what looks like speed-reading to some may just be a difference in reading speeds. I've discovered that I can read faster than most people, but it doesn't feel as though I'm going fast. It took my boyfriend two and a half weeks to read each of the Lord of the Rings books, but I'm sure he wouldn't say that he was going slowly, just at his normal speed.

So yeah, I guess I don't really understand this BTT, or have anything terribly deep to say on the topic.

Friday, December 18, 2009

New Job, New Library

So, my new job is going pretty well. Most jobs seem great at first, but there are some real positive signs -- one literal, in fact, welcoming me and announcing to the rest of the office that I was starting there on my first day. Today, we had a potluck Christmas party, and as usual, there was way too much food, so I wasn't even remotely hungry on my lunch.

I wondered what I was going to do with myself, then I saw the answer directly across the street: the public library. For some reason I'm a little wary of being too specific about where I live and work on here, so I'll just call it Suburban Library. Around here, all of the branches are linked together, so I can use my card wherever I want. Very handy. Of course I went to check it out.

The main word I'd use to describe it is "functional." It's in a large brick building of 20th century vintage. The walls are drywall, ceiling is acoustical tile, and the floor is very low carpet. The same seems to apply to its selection. Books like Edgar Sawtelle, the Twilight series, and other hotties are all displayed prominently. Most of the new non-fiction had titles like "Divorce for Dummies" and "The First-timer's Guide to Breastfeeding."

I was surprised to learn that Barbara Kingsolver has a new novel out, called The Lacuna. I'm a little skeptical. It sounds like a departure for her into more historical fiction, and honestly, some of her other books haven't been that great. I passed up The Lacuna, because it was a rather long seven-day book. No way in hell, not Christmas week. But one of my TBR's from the New Yorker year in review was there, so I grabbed that, along with a few others. Here's my haul to the best of my memory:

Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding. The one by her I wanted to read the most, liberated from the rest of her novels.

Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle. Not sure why, just looked good.

Audrey Niffeneger, Her Fearful Symmetry. This is the one from the New Yorker.

E. Annie Proulx, Accordion Crimes. The only by her that I haven't read yet.

I did OK for just being on a half-hour lunch! The staff was very nice, and it was worth taking my life in my hands to cross the street there.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Seventeen to Go (after this one)

I think now is a fine time to blog about how I have nothing to blog about. Seventeen posts to go (after this one), Christmas cards yet to write, lights yet to hang, shopping undone, a new job starting in two's a fine time to get worried! And today, I have nothing really to write about. I still have a bunch of books from my last library haul, but when they sit in my box abandoned, it's usually a sign that it's time to admit defeat and bring them back.

I started Where Men Win Glory yesterday, which is unfortunate, because it's the kind of book that makes you feel bad about giving up on. "I just didn't give a shit about the war we've been fighting for a decade?" "The heroic sacrifice of soldiers and a governement cover-up did not appeal to me?" I'd start to sound like one of the people I call at work, who say things like, "I don't really attend those types of events, I prefer to just stay home and listen to Rush Limbaugh." (Seriously. Someone said that to me once.)

I was forced to take back two of them. I tried to renew my book on Norse Mythology and one of the ones about freelance writing and they wouldn't let me. I was renewing them on their due date, so I thought maybe there was a technical glitch. I called the library about it and learned that both books had holds on them! I was so very tempted to write a note with my phone number in both books expressing my shock that someone else in the area wanted to read them and also my desire to meet this person. But I chickened out, and before my company Christmas party, I raced to the library drop-box and returned them. Whoever wanted them should have them by tomorrow at the latest!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ode to my Survival Job, or Breaking News: I Have a Job Part II

A few months ago, I breathlessly announced that I'd landed a job after over a year of looking. I'd also mentioned that it wasn't a great one, but I didn't add that I went into it with few hopes for anything other than a paycheck.

What a relief and pleasant surprise it was, then, to find a positive and supportive work environment. I'm leaving this job soon for a full-time position, with benefits. When I got the offer, it should have been a no-brainer, but this job was so hard to walk away from.

Why? Like every good environment, it starts from the top. My boss started with the organization doing part-time phone sales, just like my co-workers and I. So he knew what it was like to do our job. He knew the challenges we faced, he knew how hard it could be to call someone away from their dinner and push through their resistance to get the sale. So, he respected what we did. He also provided endless constructive criticism to help us do better. Key word, constructive. He never made anyone feel bad about themselves. He never made anyone so insecure that they didn't want to pick up the phone. He never made us afraid to ask questions or bring ideas to him.

He also hired quality people. It could have been a petty, sniping, competitive environment. But, everyone was very nice. Everyone wanted to see one another succeed. No one played stupid head games, or sucked up at anyone else's expense. When a new person came on board, there wasn't any "FNG" syndrome: they tried to get to know you and make you feel welcome.

Even the work itself wasn't bad. If you're ever faced with taking a phone job, don't be too scared. I was working for a cultural organization and theoretically calling a decent sort of person, but I encountered very few utter jerks. I would estimate my calls resulted in about 70% answering machines, 25% nice people, and 5% jerks. I enjoyed my 25%. I enjoyed chatting with the old ladies who came out with their friends. I enjoyed talking to the couple my age who were trying a subscription for the first time. I liked the old guy who decided to stretch himself and come out to some classical music, even though he'd never done so before. I liked helping the man who was a bit strapped for cash but loved our organization find a way to stay involved.

I'll miss all of it. I even thought about trying to stay, and my supervisor assured me that the door's open if I ever want to come back. I may do so. I'm excited about this new job, but still sad for what I'm leaving behind. You know that you have a hell of a good boss when he advises you to take the better opportunity!

So, I start my new job on Wednesday. I'll be writing full-time!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Books of 2009

As a direct legacy of my class with the fabulous Dr. Janet Groth, I subscribe to The New Yorker. There's always something interesting to read in there, they still have among the best short fiction available anywhere, and their online archive is unparalleled.

The current issue has an article, or featurette, called "A Year's Reading: Reviewer's Favorites from 2009." You can find this featurette here, on their website. I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't read any of these, but after reading the brief and tantalizing snippets, I've added the following to my TBR list:

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood. Promises to "revist...the post-apocalyptic world of Oryx and Crake."

Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger. Described as a "gothic yarn around a London cemetery." That's three magic words in a six-word description.

Lowboy, by John Wray. "A schizophrenic rides the subway." Very intriguing.

And on the non-fiction tip, there's:

Beg, Borrow, Steal, by Michael Greenberg. "Notes on a freelance life." Since I hope to have one myself, may be worthwhile to know what to expect.

A Strange Eventful History, by Michael Holroyd. "The linked lives of two nineteenth-century stage stars." Explaining why I want to read this is like explaining why money is good.

The Magician's Book, by Laura Miller. "Reading C.S. Lewis as a child and as an adult." I love the Narnia books. I wonder if Kittens not Kids knows about this one. She does now, anyway.

I'll be doing my own "Year in Review" soon, and I'll try to make my descriptions as pithy as theirs. But I've added some books to read to my own list!


I checked the BTT website today and was pleased to see an easy, fun, quirky one. Good. I have enough other shit to think about. So here it is:

Mark the Spot December 10, 2009
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 1:59 am

Suggested by Tammy:

What items have you ever used as a bookmark? What is the most unusual item you’ve ever used or seen used?

I've used almost everything as a bookmark. Whatever's handy. Subscription cards to magazines, paint chips, envelopes, junk mail, napkins, anything I can find. On a few occasions, I've even used my paycheck. I used to have this job where I essentially just babysat a museum. It was very slow, very dull. I always brought a book, especially since they had the world's worst internet connection. So, I always brought something to read, and occasionally used my weekly check as a bookmark. One time, I left it in the book by mistake, and the library called me about it.

But I've used everything in my life as a reader, including a few actual purpose-designed bookmarks!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The People In Your Neighborhood

A couple of years ago, I read a book of short stories set in the American West. It had a few of the usual suspects, but many authors I'd never heard of. The book was terrific, and introduced me to Mark Jude Poirer. I read a great novel by him, called Goats, and then I promptly forgot about his existence until this last trip to the library, where I happened to bump into one of his books, Modern Ranch Living.

The book is set during one hot, transformative Tuscon summer. There are two protagonists (the jacket promises three, but there are two, trust me.) Kendra is sixteen. She's into fitness and working out, and has these bizarre anger issues that even she doesn't really understand. She's working hard to get control of them. She is what one might call a "social loner". There are a couple of people she hangs out with -- her brother, the boy next door, a couple of guys from the gym, this dude that used to go to school with her but transferred -- but she isn't really close to any of them.

She also has the strangest way of talking. "Plussing as which" is sort of her catchphrase, used in context like: "Plussing as which, you'll get a sunburn if you stay out here too much longer." She has a hard time censoring her thoughts, too. In one incident, she was forced to compose a letter of apology to a neighbor lady. The lady always commented on Kendra's muscle tone, and one night in the grocery store, Kendra pointed out that the lady herself was fat and was purchasing nothing but bad food. Her therapist told her what to say in her apology letter, but she wasn't really sorry.

The other protagonist is Kendra's 30-year-old neighbor, Merv. Merv is stuck in a rather deep rut. His father died when he was fifteen, and that was just about the last thing to change in Merv's life. He still lives with his mother. He has the same friends as he did in high school, even though they're smug yuppies now. He manages a water park called Splash World, helps his mother deal with her mental health issues, and occasionally goes on dates.

The incident that sort of intertwines Kendra's and Merv's stories is the disapperance of the neighbor boy that Kendra used to fool around with on occasion. The disappearance remains mostly in the background, but it serves as sort of a catalyst for both of them. Kendra is frustrated by her inability to express herself to the police and signs up for an English class at the local community college. Merv is annoyed by the police officer's condescending attitude towards him, but also learns something disturbing about his father's death in the course of the investigation. These two things motivate him more in his job and in his life. By the end of the summer, and the story, both Merv and Kendra have managed to affect real change in their own lives.

The edges of this story are populated by fascinating characters. Kendra's parents used to be punk rockers, and now her father is a golf pro and her mother sells vintage toys at toy shows. Kendra's brother is the world's smartest professional wrestling fan. There's the bitchy and mysterious Brooke Luter, who's not exactly her brother's girlfriend, but kind of close. There's Raymond, the disabled man who hangs out in the wave pool at Merv's work and is always slipping him twenties in exchange for Merv's assistance. Merv's mother, who's terrified of house fires and has bad insomnia.

All in all, Modern Ranch Living is an enjoyable and thoughtful read.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A First for Your Library Card!!!!!

After I wrote my review of Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy, I was bracing myself. I know that my own little corner of the internet is, shall we say, lightly traveled. But I also know that parenting and raising kids is just about the most controversial topic there is, even worse than religion and politics. I wandered into a Facebook group last weekend promoting breastfeeding, and after reading a few of the discussions, I'd be just as wary of saying "maybe formula's not that bad" in there as I would yelling "Allah sucks!" in downtown Riyadh.

I also know that stuff on parenting has a way of making the rounds, so I was braced for a slew of comments along the lines of "what do you know, wait until you have some of your own." But then the completely unexpected happened.

The author herself showed up to comment!

I confess that I saw the comment last night, but was having such a rotten time at work that I didn't want to open it. What if it was bad? Even though I really liked the book, what if I'd inadvertently said something mean and hurt her feelings? Everyone at work was already blaming me for things that weren't my fault, maybe it would be a bad time to face up to something that really was my fault. Finally, this morning I realized that the comment was coming from a woman who's also known as "America's Worst Mom" and has appeared on Fixed Noise...errr...Fix News...I mean FOX News. So I stopped being so neurotic and opened it.

It was very nice, and Lenore, if you're reading this, it meant a great deal to me that you took the time to come and read my blog. Your emails also mean a lot to me, especially since you liked my Mendelssohn joke! (A recent entry on Lenore's blog was about a middle-school teacher who lost his job for making a mildly off-color, off-hand remark. I related the off-color joke my music teacher told me at the same age, also how mature it made me feel that an adult felt that I could handle a joke with a dirty word in it.)

Non-depressing historical fiction (that doesn't suck) can be a tall order. If you're in the mood for a bit of a project, I'd check out either Mary, called Magdalene or Helen of Troy both by Margaret George. If not, Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas, is uplifting but has enough historical background in it to keep it from being mere fluff. When We Were Gods, by Colin Falconer, is all about Cleopatra and was very good too. Apologies for not being able to come up with anything a bit more modern, but all the ones I could remember that were set in more modern times were either a. depressing, b. crap, or c. depressing crap.

Thanks again for stopping by! Everyone should stop by Lenore's blog too. It's very interesting, and even a bit inspiring -- I, for one, am determined to become a foot soldier in the War on Halloween, and come up with something so spooky and fun for next year that the kids will still remember it when they're my age!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Month in Review

It was a dark and stormy afternoon as yours truly cast about aimlessly for something to post on, having planned through yesterday but no further. I looked at other people's blogs but didn't find any help there. It's way too soon to blog about how I have nothing to blog about.

Then it hit me: I could resurrect one of my many, many abandoned features!

Without further ado, I present: NOVEMBER IN REVIEW!

As a personal aside, did this month go by in about five minutes for anyone else? I was shocked when Thanksgiving came, stunned to be filling out my paperwork for work and realizing that the pay period ended in December and that my end-of-year callbacks had come around!

I only read three books in November, but they were all pretty good. Lisa Jewell's Ralph's Party was a proto-Jewell (her first novel) but still enjoyable. Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was amazing, as beautiful and evocative as its title and also an interesting document of a long-gone lifestyle. Where You Once Belonged by Kent Haruf, was good too, lean, mean and nothing but action.

I tried to read Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and am appropriately ashamed of my inability to get into the book. I abandoned it at around page 35 or so, despite the fact that I was about a quarter of the way through this extremely short novel.

I visited the library twice. I was pleasantly surprised to learn how inexpensive the hold fees are, but dismayed at the larger trend of lack of respect for the purpose of the library and the other patrons that are using it. I guess it fits right in with lack of respect in the stores, on the road, on the telephone, and even in internet comments (though I'm happy to say, only once here. If you're reading this, you're statistically a higher caliber of person than those that go to craigslist to swear and make racist remarks. Good on you).

I did well with my blog, making 13 posts and hitting all the BTT's. I still rarely get comments and I'm not sure what to do about that, but oh well.

All in all, November was a short, rushed month. I still have quite a bit of reading from my two library trips and am working on an interesting one right now. I think I'll get back to it!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Free Range and Certified Organic!

I wonder, who else but me would read a book on parenting when I'm not one, not planning to be one, and not studying the topic for school? I don't know how I found Lenore Skenazy's blog Free Range Kids, but I became a fan immediately, relating as it did to something that's been bothering me for a while.

I'm talking about the school buses. Have you been behind one lately? When I was kid, I grew up on a relatively small suburban street. There was a whole passel of kids on my block, and we had a bus stop. The school would tell us every year whose house had it, and all the kids would walk over and wait together. The process was reversed at the end of the day: the bus would stop at one of our houses and everyone would walk three or four doors down to their own home.

No more. Now, the bus crawls along like an inchworm, stopping at this house, then the house two doors down, then the house next door. It's not just in the suburbs. Last year, I was waiting behind a bus to turn right onto a busy street. The light changed, the bus pulled forward, then slammed to a stop, blocking all the traffic on all sides of the intersection. As I was waiting for my heart rate to slow, the doors hissed open and the bus disgorged a single girl, about 11 or 12, with a crossing guard who escorted her safely across the street. In case you're having a hard time visualizing all of this, the girl lived basically right across the street from where we were stopped at the light. She was old enough to cross (in a crosswalk) on her own AND she had a guard, yet the bus driver still felt the need to escort her even closer to her home.

Lenore Skenazy sees this as a symptom of a widespread problem affecting the way children are raised in this country. Her book cites a variety of changes in a single generation. Kids, for the most part, don't walk to school at all, or even wait for the bus. They don't play outside. They don't do much of anything that's not highly organized and supervised, even into their teen years. Her book, Free Range Kids, traces the sources of this madness (hint: it rhymes with "Cable Mews") and offers suggestions for parents on how to break out of this mindset. She addresses the fear of kidnapping by strangers (about as likely as your kid getting hit with an asteroid, and about as easily avoided), the fear of poisoned Halloween candy (I thought everyone knew that was a complete fiction, but I guess not) and the fear of rough play (legitimate, but sometimes getting minor injuries like scrapes and bruises is a key part of learning and development).

Her book is written in a conversational tone, and includes mostly anecdotal tales rather than hard evidence. It's more like, "My friend let both of her kids quit sports and they turned out great!" rather than "A study by Harvard College surveyed ten thousand kids over thirty years and found no significant correlation between participation in sports and success later in life." It's an enjoyable read, even if you're not planning children anytime soon, or ever. It brings up a lot of interesting issues about society and points out how infantilizing children and young adults harms us all. Read anything about childhoods, even 75 years ago, and you'll see that oftentimes, people didn't have much of one. Look at yearbooks from the World War II era at your local historical society, for example. You'll often see early graduation ceremonies because half of the class was going off to war. My own grandfather left school at age 16 to join the navy. He came back, married my grandmother, had my father the next year and finished building his own house a couple of years later.

I'm certainly not trying to say that things were better back then, and neither is Skenazy. But the point is that 16-year-olds are certainly developmentally capable of walking to a friend's house alone, or camping in the woods by themselves for a weekend. Yet, Skenazy uncovered numerous examples of kids who weren't allowed to do that sort of thing. She found a six-year old who wasn't allowed to go to the mailbox by herself. She found warning labels on DVDs of Sesame Street videos from the 1970s, because of the kids playing at construction sites.

I guess the main criticism I have of the book is its narrow audience. The over-protected kids we're discussing are most likely middle-class and up. It neglects the fact that, sadly, some kids really AREN'T safe going to the mailbox alone in poorer, more dangerous neighborhoods. And there are also a lot of parents out there who neglect their kids. Some of them just don't care. The kids who live next door to my parents, for example, have been more or less ignored since they were old enough to walk. They've wandered out into the street and spend hours outside completely unsupervised every day. They're four and six now, but this has been going on for a long, long while.

I think the book would have been better had Skenazy acknowledged other realities a bit more. I think both problems are different sides of the same coin. Skenazy pointed out how these days, motherhood is not just something you do, it's something you are. Society judges you as a person on how well your kids come out, how you raise them, and even whether you have them at all, and it judges you harshly. Some people who would have preferred to 'be' something else feel pressured into it anyway and wind up becoming indifferent parents. Other people pour all of their effort into every little detail, approaching it as if the smallest mis-step will doom the entire enterprise. And refuse to let a six-year-old go get the mail in a safe, quiet neighborhood.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

BTT Goes Meta

This week's question:

But, What About Me? December 3, 2009

But enough about you, what about ME?

Today’s question?

What’s your favorite part of Booking Through Thursday? Why do you participate (or not)?

Well, this is a nice, easy one to answer! I love this meme because it helps to keep my blog alive. If I'm reading a longer book, that means I have little to post about until I finish it. Or, if I'm reading a book that's not terribly good, or if I owe so much to the library that I'm not reading anything at all, it helps keep me blogging.

I especially love this meme during NaBloPoMo, or right now, when I'm trying to do 25 more posts (after this one) before 2010. It helps take the pressure off. I feel like Thursdays are a "gimme," sort of. Three more to go before the end of the year, so I really only have to make up 22 topics for posts (agh! where's my brandy!). I like the fact that it brings people over to my little corner of teh interwebz, also that it gets my out of my corner to visit other peoples' virtual book nooks. It's a chance to be a part of something online, the way NaBloPoMo was during the first year I did it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sad Little TBR

So, in my quest to hit 400 posts by year's end, I've been doing a wee bit of planning. Today was going to be TBR list day. I realized the other day that I haven't even so much as glanced at that part of my blog in a very long time, not since I changed the template and lost all of my original lists. Believe me, I will think long and hard about ever doing that again.

So I scrolled down today to edit my list. People of the Book, which I finished a few months ago, was still on there. Good. One easy thing to trim, now for the additions. There's the "new" Candace Bushnell, that I've never managed to find at the library. Good. There's the "other" novel by Geraldine Brooks. Good, that can go on there, too. Now, for all the rest of them...wait, where are they?

I couldn't think of anything that I've been *dying* to read. Sure, there are a few that I'm kind of curious about. But nothing that motivates me to keep checking the library. I could probably read 1984 anytime I want, but I never think to look for it. I'm adding David Copperfield after this post, too, even though I've had it out several times and often wind up returning it unread. I also have to add Retail Hell, by Freeman Hall, based as it is on one of my favorite blogs.

Other than that, nada. With most of my favorite authors, I've read all of their stuff and am now waiting for more to come out. And I can't think of any books I've heard of that sound so new and exciting that I just *have* to try them. So, readers, any suggestions for me?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


If you grew up in a haunted house, how would that influence the course of the rest of your life? Of your family's? How different would it be from growing up haunted by something? Those questions occupy Jennifer Finney Boylan's beautiful memoir, I'm Looking Through You.

Living under a rock as I do, I was not aware of Jennifer Finney Boylan until some enterprising library page decided that this book would make a nice component of the nonfiction display nearest the escalator. For my fellow sub-geological dwellers, Jennifer Finney Boylan is a Colby College professor, friend of Richard Russo, bestselling author and two-time Oprah guest. She also used to be known as James Boylan. That's right, she is the first best-selling transgendered author (at least that we know of for sure).

This book is the follow-up to her bestseller, She's Not There. If you don't wish to read about being transgendered, don't worry. This book focuses largely on Boylan's unusual upbringing, in the bizarre haunted house that featured the Monkey Bathroom (where the previous owner's monkey lived, of course), the creepy swingin' sixties bachelor pad living room (as she put it, where the parties used to happen before the bachelor was found mysteriously stabbed to death) and the ghost of a child, or possibly an adult, who drowned...or didn't. It's a bit reminiscent of an Augustyn Burrows book, but with much, much more happiness and stability.

For Boylan was fortunate enough to grow up in a loving home. Her father was a classical music lover and banker who would make her play her Chopin and Beethoven in ragtime or 7/8 and would mediate arguments between herself and her sister by ordering them to stop and argue the opposite point. Her grandmother was embarrassingly, humiliatingly open about sex (the story of her father's conception got dragged out at every get-together, complete with its punchline: "Best screwing I ever had!"). Her aunt was always cold, even in summer, and made copious amounts of sock-monkey cats, which she called Kittygirls.

This story is not only intriguing, but beautifully written. It almost looks effortless. It's the type of book that makes one think: "I could do that. I had a weird aunt, too. I could tell about our family traditions and stories, make people laugh and cry, too." It has a forward momentum of its own, a great deal of heart and humor. It's definitely worth a read, and I suspect her first book is, too. People may come to Finney's work for the freakshow aspect of it all, but she gives them tremendous reason to stay.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Procrastination is Bad

So, at the beginning of this month, I said that rather than do NaBloPoMo this year, I was going to set a goal of reaching Post 400 by the end of 2009. I had about 40 posts to go at that point, and 60 days to do them in. The logical thing to do would have been to do 20 posts in November, and 20 posts in December.

As you can see, that didn't happen.

So now I've got about 28 posts to go (after this one) and 30 days to do them in. Essentially, all I've done is moved NaBloPoMo from November to December, notoriously the most hectic month of the year. Good going. If I post every day, I can still take Christmas off. Or, I can double-post a couple of times and get a few more days off, since it's posts, not days that count with this.

On the bright side, I just renewed a shitload of books, so I have enough to keep me busy!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

...And a Belated BTT

I imagined that it would have something to do with Thanksgiving, and I was right!

Thankful Thursday November 26, 2009
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 1:52 am

It’s Thanksgiving in the U.S.A. today, so I know at least some of you are going to be as busy with turkey and family as I will be, so this week’s question is a simple one:

What books and authors are you particularly thankful for this year?

This year, as I am every year, I'm thankful for Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool. Definitely the funniest of his books, also the most touching, it is additionally a Thanksgiving/Christmas story, with all of the action taking place between Thanksgiving and New Year's. I usually read it around this time every year.

I'm also thankful for Lisa Jewell. I sort of re-discovered her this year, I guess. I'd read One-Hit Wonder ages ago and pretty much forgot about it right away. I bumped into her new book earlier this year and wound up going back and reading them all. She's a lot of fun, for anyone who hasn't been reading this blog. Light enough that you can take her to the beach or use her for some escapism, but not so shallow that splashing around with her just gets you covered in muddy water and makes you feel slightly stupid.

I'm thankful for the books my friend reccomended to me about freelance writing. Not only will they be a tremendous help, but they opened my eyes to the fact that reserving books is cheaper than I'd thought. They also introduced me to the labor and careers section of the library, which turned out to be at the other end of that escalator in the middle of the place.

I'm thankful for Chuck Klosterman. He has such a wicked sense of humor. I'm also thankful for Greg Ames, who painted a vivid portrait of Buffalo in his book, Buffalo Lockjaw. It seems to me that nationally, the place has a reputation for chicken wings, snow, and a losing football team. Those are certainly elements of life here, but there's more to the city than that. Buffalonians do NOT spend all their spare time shoveling and watching the Bills lose, nor are wings on the menu for every meal (here, we just call them "wings," not "Buffalo wings". DUH, where else would they be from? And, they come with blue cheese and celery. Always.)

But above all else, I'm thankful for the entity that introduced me to all of these books and writers: the public library. In an era where people actually bitch and moan about Extreme Home Makeover recipients being handed "something for nothing" and view public transportation as "a form of welfare," the public libraries offer a massive repository of books, free computer time, programs for families, help with taxes and resume writing, and a bajillion other services I'm sure I'm missing. It's a place where everyone is equal: whether you're homeless or you're trying to escape the ennui of life in a McMansion, you're welcome to stay as long as you want and take as much as you can carry, as long as you promise to bring it back. It's a beautiful institution, and I'm thankful for its existence every time I go.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Happy Belated Thanksgiving

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving! I just realized I forgot to do a Thanksgiving day post. Normally I pop on, wish everyone a happy day, and head out.

This year was a little different. It was my first holiday where I chose not to spend it with my own parents, and went to my boyfriend's family's house instead. I've missed Easter with my parents many times. Sometimes it's because I'm not around, sometimes it's because they weren't around, but it was never like I was right there and just didn't go.

Thanksgiving Day, for me, was chaotic, and had an unfortunate 6-hour drive in the middle of it. It was a good meal, and nice to see my boyfriend's family again. But it's also nice to be home! I hope everyone else had a nice Thanksgiving, too!

Sunday, November 22, 2009


I've always said that it's a good sign when you check out a library book that's all beat up. The next stop for Where You Once Belonged by Kent Haruf should probably be the repair room, if not the bin. I had to handle it very carefully to keep it from disintegrating!

I got this one mainly because it had a grain elevator on the cover, also because it reminded me a wee bit of a Tawni O'Dell novel, where a former football player returns to his small town after being released from prison for beating his wife into a permanent vegetative state. It's pretty different from that book, though.

This one also deals with a small town, out in Colorado. The returning character, Jack Burdette, is clearly an ungovernable sociopath from early childhood. His prowess on the football field masked all of that, and put him into a position of trust, which he thoroughly abused.

It's hard to talk much about this book. I liked it, but there's not a lot IN it. It's like attempting an analysis on a turkey sandwich with mayo. Well, you can tell the ingredients just by looking at the sandwich. Assuming everything's in date, you can also tell how it will likely taste before you bite into it. It doesn't really have any cultural significance, any deeper meaning. It's just a turkey sandwich, delicious and satisfying, that someone made because he or she was hungry.

And the plot of this book simply reads as a story that needed to be told. Because it was interesting. Because the events stayed with everyone that they happened to. Because the story's already being told, in bits and pieces around town, with all the inaccuracies of gossip, and the narrator who was there from start to finish wanted to see it done right. The characters seem real enough, but not strikingly so. They seem real like the characters in the stories your uncle tells at family get-togethers. The backdrop is only as evocative as it needs to be: you see the grain elevator, the cafe, Jack Burdette's hotel room, the newspaper office, and his wife's house, and little else. The action doesn't take place anywhere else, it's superfluous.

But it's a good tale and an interesting read. It's harder than one might think to write a book the same way you'd tell a story, but Haruf has done it marvelously. He keeps to the main subject, he doesn't ramble, he keeps the reader engaged. Secondary characters wander through but the story never runs away with them. They remain secondary, not as interesting as Jack Burdette and what happens when he returns.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Book Haul 1.1

I mentioned earlier that when I'd gone to the library last week, I'd known what I wanted and they didn't have it. Since these were not mere pleasure books, but were books about starting a freelance writing career, I actually reserved them. They came in this week, and since I was out and about yesterday morning, I went to pick them up.

I'm going to have to remember what a world of difference it is to drop by the central branch early in the day. I noticed it before I even went inside: there were parking spaces. It was quiet upstairs, the guards were still in a decent mood, computers were open everywhere and no one was being annoying. Maybe they were all still half-asleep. But at any rate, the morning's definitely the time to go!

I couldn't just walk past all the stacks of books without getting myself something. So I grabbed a book on Norse mythology. The reason why I wanted to read it is so dorky, I don't even want to put it on the blog. But it should be interesting, and a fast read, too. I always think it's good to know a little about that sort of thing. Myths endure long past the cultures that created them, and continue to capture the imaginations of modern authors (or video game developers). I think I'm going to bring a few books that I've read already back tomorrow, though. My box of library books is overflowing!

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Happy BTT! Today's question:

Posterity November 19, 2009

Today’s question was suggested by Barbara:

Do you think any current author is of the same caliber as Dickens, Austen, Bronte, or any of the classic authors? If so, who, and why do you think so? If not, why not? What books from this era might be read 100 years from now?

Without a shadow of a doubt, I would say that 100 years from now, Plum Sykes, Lauren Weisenberg, Dan Brown, and the lady who wrote the Twilight books will all be taught alongside Dickens and Shakespeare.

Just kidding.

Actually, I'm not sure what will endure 100 years from now. Since there are novels that are valued a great deal as a document of the times, any one of the above authors *could* conceiveably last that long. I shudder to think.

There are a lot of wonderful writers out there today. E. Annie Proulx and Alice Munro both come immediately to mind as ones who might have staying power. But in looking at the rest of my favorites, I don't really think most of them will last. VC Andrews is already starting to fade, as is James Herriott (sadly). Laurie Graham, Tawni O'Dell and Sandra Dallas all write enjoyable books, but they're not powerful enough to stick around long-term. Wally Lamb is a fad, I think. People won't get a lot of Jasper Fforde's jokes in 100 years. George Saunders critiques modern society, which may or may not be interesting once society has completely transformed again. Historical fiction never seems to endure, and that's Margaret George's game.

JK Rowling, on the other hand, might still be popular. Maybe Phillip Pullman, too. Good fantasy books are like heirloom china and silver for geeks. Geek parents read them to their geek babies, who will one day grow up to bond with a fellow geek or geekette over their love for Tolkien or Ursula LeGuin, and marry and have their own geek babies and perpetuate the cycle. Since none of the stuff in the books can happen, they can never become too dated.

But other than these, I can't really think of anybody. How about you?

In Which My Resolve Is Tested

So, it's easy to sit there and say, "I pull the plug on any book I don't enjoy." And it's easy to do it to a book I have no real connection with. I'm pretty random in selecting my reads from the library. If it grabs my eye and looks cool and I still have room in my bag, it comes home with me. Sometimes it stops looking cool almost immediately. Other times, I read it all the way through and it turns out to actually BE cool, like that fascinating book about turtles I read before I started this blog. But, you know, if it turns out to be lame, well, it was free to check out and it can go straight back, no harm, no foul.

But I don't select every book that way. There are some that I've planned to read for a while, or felt like I should read because it would be good for me. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe was such a book, with the added dimension of it being a modern classic. Not only did I give up on a book that was listed as source material for one of my favorites, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, but I gave up on a classic of post-colonial literature. And, it's such a short book, too, only 117 pages, and I'd made it through 26.

But it took me a week and a half to get that far. I really, really don't enjoy blogging about classics. They make me sort of nervous. If I say something good about them, it sounds like "well...duh! Of course the characters were great, it's DICKENS!" If I say somehting bad about them, I feel like the moronic fifteen-year old who complains in English class that "Shakespeare's plots were, like, really unoriginal and lame," not understanding that it's the 500 years of literature, theater and movies that copied HIM, not the other way around.

But, I had a very hard time getting into this book. It didn't help that it was heavily annotated (I grabbed the Norton Critical Edition). I hate heavily annotated books. It's like having someone standing over your shoulder, tapping you every two seconds to announce some random fact: "Ironically, that character's name means 'peace'!" "Market day was the social and economic locus of the African village!" "Here, they're referring to a person, not the similar-sounding goddess!" Maybe it's a cultural thing, too, but I wasn't feeling the forward momentum. Nothing in the plot or the characters made me want to turn the page over to see what happened next; indeed, when I picked up the book tonight for one more attempt, I saw that I had abandoned it in the middle of a page last time.

But ultimately, life's too short. I have eight other books in my bin that I do want to read, and holding on to this one is keeping me from them. My apologies to Chinua Achebe, Barbara Kingsolver, the librarian who helped me track this book down, and my post-colonial lit professor from college. I tried. I really did.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Rotten Reads

Here's a great BTT, that I've talked about before on this site:

Too Short? November 12, 2009

“Life is too short to read bad books.” I’d always heard that, but I still read books through until the end no matter how bad they were because I had this sense of obligation.

That is, until this week when I tried (really tried) to read a book that is utterly boring and unrealistic. I had to stop reading.

Do you read everything all the way through or do you feel life really is too short to read bad books?

I used to read everything all the way through, too. Then, in graduate school, I had a professor who was also a book addict. He was a legend of my graduate school program, having been there almost from the beginning. His office was so out-of-control with books that he'd been forced to use the room across the hall as a workspace. He was known for his annotated bibliographies -- later, many alums who had been out of school for decades said that they still used them as references. I had my first class with him and he talked about his desire to read every book ever written, but "the bastards kept gaining on me."

I came awy from that class excited about the rest of the semester. Two days later, we had a program-wide barbeque to celebrate the new school year and welcome the new group of students. I was on the porch, having a beer and talking to my friends in the program as people trickled in. The first faculty member to show up was my advisor. From the porch, I saw her grab the first person she saw and tell them to have everyone come outside. When the group gathered, she told us all that the legendary professor, famous for his love of books and the Boston Red Sox, had been killed in a car crash that afternoon.

So, since then, I've never continued with a bad book. I thought about how you'll never really get to read them all, and wondered how much time my professor had wasted with the bad ones, since he was famous for never giving up on a book. I'll try almost anything when it comes to reading, but if it doesn't engage me, I give up. I even quit on a 120-page book last year.

I try to give them a fair shake. Some books, like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, take a while to gel. But when it becomes obvious that the book and I are just not right for one another, I go on to the next one. I guess that's part of the reason I tend to check out so many books when I go to the library. I'll take anything that grabs my interest at the time. Sometimes, they don't grab my interest anymore by the time I get home. Sometimes, they turn out to be ugly or boring or full of bad right-wing cliches (Doesn't She Look Natural, anyone?) and I wind up putting them aside. It's good not to have to make another trip in these cases.

And I don't feel a sense of "obligation." The book will forgive me for not finishing it. I'm not letting the author down by returning the book to the library so that someone who might actually like it can read it. I'm not letting myself down by failing to torture myself with a boring book. Reading isn't my job, it's somehting I do for enjoyment and to expand my own mind. Indeed, from that point of view, I'm letting myself down by continuing with something I really can't stand.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Yesterday's Library Haul

When I first moved to the city, the chance to go to the Central Branch on a regular basis was one of the things I was looking forward to the most. The Branch is about a half-hour drive from where I grew up, so going there was a rare treat, and normally I contented myself with my town's library branch, or occasionally that of the next town over.

Now that I get to go on a regular basis, some of the sheen has worn off. Why? For one thing, it's always crowded. But worse than that, it's generally crowded with people who seem to be unfamiliar with how to act in a library. People talking so loudly on their cell phones that the entire section could hear them. People having raucous conversations in the stacks, despite the fact that the library cafe is only a few feet away, and that there are three or four regular cafes on the same block. Someone apparently applied deordorant at one of the computer stations, because when I got there, the plastic thingy was left right next to the mouse. Ewwww.

The library staff seems to have made the decision not to police everyone's behavior for minimum wage. It makes sense, in a way. The cell phone offenders are so legion that if you made it your business to tell them all to STFU, it would be virtually all you did. But worse, some of the staff are also ignorant of how to act in a library. The cafe workers had the Bee Gees blasting so loud you could hear it in the adjacent stacks. The reference desk woman wouldn't ask them to turn it down, so I had to. The girl gave me a blank, shocked stare, and turned it down. Come on! It's supposed to be a quiet place. It's not Abercrombie and Fitch. It's not a traditional coffee joint. IT'S A LIBRARY. THAT MEANS QUIET.

Asking her to turn it down made me feel like a crotchety old lady, but you know, our society is so noisy. Banks and fast-food places have television sets and music on, lest you fail to be totally stimulated while waiting in line. JetBlue Airlines has little televisions in the back of each seat, and they're rigged to make turning them off less than intuitive. If you manage to turn it off before liftoff, it'll turn back on again once the plane is in the air and assault you with your viewing options. When you go to the cinema, a television is playing a loop of previews while you buy your tickets and popcorn. So what's wrong with having one quiet place? I liked the cafe at first and thought it was a good way to draw people in. Now I think they'd be there regardless and it just makes the library noisier.

My aggravation with the other patrons was matched by my aggravation in choosing books. Unlike a typical visit, I knew what I wanted...and of course, it wasn't in. So I wandered around for about an hour and still managed to find eight books, as follows:

Where You Once Belonged, Kent Haruf. It was featured on the end shelf, and its plot kind of reminded me of one of Tawni O'Dell's novels.

Carson McCullers Complete Novels, Carson McCullers. Trust me, NOT how I would have chosen to read the rest of her work. The volume is suspiciously slim, too. But other than a bunch of other copies of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and her short stories, that was all they had of her. I took it. I may or may not read it.

Gig: Americans talk about their jobs at the turn of the millenium, ed. John Bowe. An updated version of Studs Terkel's marvelous Working. Hope it's as good!

I'm looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted, by Jennifer Finney Boylan. It's non-fiction. I can't really determine what it will be about, but it looks intriguing. I'll let you know!

Free Range Kids: giving our children the freedom we had, Lenore Skenazy. I'm a big fan of her blog,Free Range Kids, and her book was literally the first thing I saw when I came into the library.

Ava's Man, Rick Bragg. This is part two in a trilogy, apparently. I found Part Three in their "Staff Picks" section. It looked interesting, but I decided to try to go chronologically. It's a sort of family memoir.

Modern Ranch Living, Mark Jude Poirer. I read one of his novels and a short story of his, too. They were both terrific, and I bumped into this one and decided to grab it.

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, Jon Krakauer. His books are always good, and I recently saw him on The Daily Show promoting this one.

So that should keep me busy for a while, and hopefully, keep me from having to return to the library!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Great Literature

When I pick out my books, I don't have a specific process. I'll give almost anything a try. If I've heard something about it or seen it displayed repeatedly, I'll check it out. If I like the cover or the title, I'll check it out. I figure that as long as you make timely returns, getting books from the library is risk-free. If it sucks, what have you wasted? If it's good, your adventuresome tastes have been rewarded. But sometimes there are books that are in a whole other category of good, and Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one of them.

After I finished the book, I read the back and realized something shocking to a modern reader -- it's unblurbable. The back merely describes it as "a tale of moral isolation in a small Southern town." Well, what the hell does that mean? The style of the book is one that you simply don't see anymore. Nothing specific HAPPENS in this book, really. Nor can you say that it's totally character-driven.

In fact, it's much like real life. Imagine, for a moment, that you've found yourself in this small Southern town during the Depression. It's night, and you don't know what to do with yourself, so when you pass by the bar, you go in. It's not completely dead in there, but the bartender doesn't have much to do and is in a talkative mood, so he talks to you. He tells you all about his own life and his relationship with his wife. He points out one patron and tells you that the guy is a deaf-mute and has been eating the same three meals a day there for weeks now. He points out another guy and says he's been here just under a week, but he's getting drunker and more belligerant every night. While you're talking and drinking, a girl of about twelve or thirteen comes in and buys a pack of cigarettes. The bartender sells them to her without comment. The belligerant guy gets up and starts yelling at the deaf-mute, talking some nonsense about how the deaf-mute "knows." The belligerant guy gets ejected only to cause a sensation by staggering back in with a black man (remember, it's the 1930's South). The bartender finally sorts things out, stamps out the impending fight, gets the black man safely out of the bar, and conducts the belligerant drunk out the door with the deaf-mute, who's offered the man a place to sleep it off.

You've just met all of the principals of this book. But you don't realize it yet. They all turn out to be interesting in different ways. Two things bind them all together: their mutual fascination with the deaf-mute, Mr. Singer, and the fact that they are all seekers. The young smoker, whose first name is Mick, is somewhere in the middle of a large family that has converted their home into a boarding house. But somehow, deep inside of her, there is music. She has a tremendous gift, she can remember entire symphonies and compose even though she can't play any instruments herself, learning how is what she dreams of. The black man who got dragged into the bar is the black doctor in town. He has spent his whole life trying to uplift his fellow blacks, who are mostly poor and uneducated in his town. In the process, it largely cost him his own family.

I won't tell you about the rest of the people in the bar, for finding out is one of the pleasures of the book. It's also a rare pleasure, too. Modern novels seem to me to be much "busier". They all have destinations and beginnings. They are highways, and this book is a meandering county route, as the main characters all engage in their solitary, forlorn hunts for a kindred spirit and soulmate.

The book is also interesting in an anthropological way. I saw a program on TV once about a certain section of New York City (I can't remember which one). They talked about a movie that had been filmed there in the 1940s, a largely forgettable one, but one thing that stuck with me was a comment from their interviewee. He pointed out that in the movie, people hang out on their stoops, listen to the radio together, and walk around simply for the sake of seeing what was going on. He then said that television was introduced two years later, and that all of that came to a grinding halt. This book gives a glimpse of life before television, too. Young Mick making her "radio rounds," hiding in the bushes of classical music listeners to hear their radios. Biff, the belligerant drunk, working at the "Sunny Dixie Show," a cut-rate fair with one ride and a bunch of carnival games whose circuit embraced the outskirts of the town. The black doctor's daughter going to pitch horseshoes on Saturday nights.

You don't see that sort of thing much anymore. The novelty of a "Sunny Dixie Show" would wear off fast even in small towns. Horseshoes and other such games are generally a sideline a party where everyone already knows each other, not an organized event where strangers might meet. And the minute Mick got too close to a house, all of the motion-sensor lights would come on and she'd soon find herself trying to explain her love of music to the police.

Not that the world of this unspecified small Southern town was all roses, of course. Many, many bad things happen in the course of this book. The black doctor and his family are all good people, but are affected profoundly by the racism of the town and of the era. Mick's family loses their fight to stay afloat due to a tragic and foolish accident. The joy of the Sunny Dixie Show is marred by brawling. These realities make the quests of the main characters all the more poignant and vital. And much of the change that has happened since the 1930s is, of course, positive. But in reading this book, I couldn't help think of the ways that technology has cut people off from each other. The heart is still a lonely hunter, but with fewer grounds to hunt in.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Where Are All The Posts?

So, astute observers of both this blog and the calendar may have noticed that although National Blog Posting Month (affectionately known as NaBloPoMo) is underway, I have not been posting every day so far this week. I don't intend to do it for the rest of this month, or this year, either.

Why? I guess it just ran its course with me. When I first heard about it, as an offshoot of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, also in November), it seemed like a fun and doable project for me. And it was! I made all thirty days. I visited the NaBloPoMo website frequently. I joined every interest group I could find, and made two or three of my own. I met lots and lots of other bloggers who were supportive on those days when you just had nothing to say. It made me think differently about this blog and helped me break out of the "read a book and review it" format I'd developed. I started doing memes and thematic posts. It was a lot of fun, and I couldn't wait to do it again next year.

I started "training" for it in October, trying to blog more regularly in order to help get in the swing of things. I visited the NaBloPoMo page on the first day of the challenge, and regularly afterwards. But something was different. There's a sidebar that shows recent activity on the site. The first year I did this, the sidebar could barely keep up. You'd join a bunch of groups, make a bunch of comments, come back ten minutes later, and all of your stuff would have been bumped out of the siderbar. Last year, the sidebar barely seemed to move. The main page, with the "random featured blogposts of the day" quickly sprouted cobwebs. I'd ask for a writing prompt from a group, and no one would reply.

On one of the rare occasions where I actually managed a conversation with another site member, she said that she felt that extending NaBloPoMo year round changed the feel of things. Or maybe it was the economy, the election, the weather, or any other random external referent. Who knows. But without the community, it quickly became the equivalent of taking a vow to vaccuum the living room every day for a month. Just. Not. Fun. I wasn't excited about reaching the goal, I didn't typically get upset when I was struggling, it became kind of meaningless.

So this year, I made my own sort of challenge. I believe this is post #362 since I started this blog. My goal is to hit 400 by the end of 2009. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...

Thursday, November 5, 2009

My Life in Letters

This week's BTT question:

It’s All About Me November 5, 2009
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 1:36 am

Which do you prefer? Biographies written about someone? Or Autobiographies written by the actual person (and/or ghost-writer)?

I much prefer autobiographies to biographies. There are always holes in biographies. Even though they're more objective, you never feel as if you're getting the entire story.

The biography I just finished is a good example. Nyiregyhazi was allegedly working on an autobiography that has since been lost. I'd love to know how he viewed himself. It's easy to come to conclusions about him and his life. Easy to draw a direct line between his tightly controlled childhood and inability to cope with the demands of a career as a concert pianist, easy to draw similar conclusions about his relationship with his mother and his ten marriages. Did he draw the same conclusions, though? Or did he attribute his troubles to something else?

Another good example of this problem can be found in the biography of Axl Rose: W.A.R by Mick Wall. In this case, Axl wouldn't talk with Mick Wall because Wall had pissed him off over fifteen years ago. So Wall's source material consisted primarily of interviews with the few friends and ex-bandmates that are willing to talk about their time with Axl, and interviews from Guitar World and Rolling Stone, which I myself have yellowing in the closet of my childhood bedroom. What's clear from the book is that Axl was up to something that he was not choosing to share with very many people.

Autobiographies can be more revealing that someone else's perspective ever could. Joan Crawford was widely regarded as an excellent mother until Mommie Dearest came out. In Lillian Gish's outraged and near-tearful defense of her mentor DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation, you learn more about the regard she had for DW Griffith than a thousand biographers could ever say. A biographer might be tempted to psychoanalyze the behvaior of Motley Crue over the years, but he or she probably wouldn't draw the same simple conclusion that the Crue itself did: "We did all this stuff because it was fun. When it quit being fun and nearly killed us, we stopped, but that was the only reason why. If they ever invent a type of drug that won't ruin your life, we are SO THERE."

So, I definitely prefer autobiographies. Even with the ghostwriter, they get at what biographies never really can: the subject's actual experience of his or her life.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Last Jewell

Finishing the last of all the books a particular author has written is bittersweet. It's worse if the author is dead, because there will be no more. But even with a living author, it's bittersweet. You're done discovering now, and just waiting for something new, like everyone else.

In the case of Lisa Jewell, the last, quite randomly, happened to be the first. Ralph's Party was the novel she wrote on a bet, after losing the last in a succession of shitty jobs, and it launched her career.

The book deals with similar themes as most of her other books. Volumes and volumes have been written about the frothy, initial venture into adulthood, which usually winds up looking more like a kid's version of adulthood accompanied by a shitty job. But it seems that there's less about exploring the second phase of adulthood, the one which involves mortgages and babies and responsible jobs. Jewell's books deal with these themes, and with the inherent conflicts and ambivalence that often accompany these life decisions. Many of her characters have a sort of creative and bohemian bent, and don't want to become their parents. Yet, they realize they're getting a bit old to rent grungy apartments, stay out drinking all night, and indulge in random hookups.

Most of these conflicts have a satisfactory, if not totally happy, resolution in Jewell's books. Ralph's Party is no exception. The twin plots in the book are loosely bound together by the fact that the principals all live in the same apartment building. In the basement, the rivaly-friendship of stuffed-shirt Smith and freewheeling artist Ralph is shaken when they acquire a pretty female flatmate named Jem. Above them, long-term couple Siobhan and Karl and trying to sort out their future. Siobhan has not worked in a while, has put on weight, and is feeling at loose ends, old and unattractive. Karl, although still very attracted to his girlfriend, has had an utterly meaningless affair with Cheri from the top floor. His life has also changed with a major job opportunity, making Siobhan feel even more insecure. Cheri is also a factor in the triangle brewing down in the basement, although she doesn't know it -- she's been Smith's unrequited love interest for five years, despite the fact that their most meaningful exchange involved the weather. It's like "Friends," except these people aren't.

I was certain I knew halfway through how both situations would resolve, but I was only half-right. Still, I walked away satisfied, and still, the book had its own forward momentum towards its inevitable conclusion. The one criticism I would have of this book is that two of the characters -- Smith and Cheri -- were severely underdeveloped. Throughout the book, you get long stretches of the perspectives of the other four principals, but almost nothing of these two. In Cheri, I can see the beginnings of Delilah from Thirtynothing. But Delilah was a human being. Cheri is all cold, deadly, selfish beauty and nothing more. Smith? He's just nothing. We learn little of him other than that he's a banker, has been carrying on this fantasy affair with Cheri for five years, and has been friends with Ralph since high school.

But, hey. Jewell was just starting out with this book. Since then, her books have gotten better, her plots have gotten more creative, and her characters have gotten deeper and more original. All of her successive books are crammed to the gills with interesting folk, who have big dreams, make stupid mistakes, and who you ultimately want to see happy. I can forgive a couple of cardboard cut-outs in her first time out. I just hope she's working on something new now!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Black Death

I said that I'd thoroughly enjoyed People of the Book, and was looking forward to reading more of Geraldine Brooks, so I picked up Year of Wonders the last time I was downtown.

The first thing I noticed about it was that it had been beaten to hell. That's usually a good sign in library books. Crinkled cover, limp spine, coffee and tea stains throughout, it usually means that it's been well-loved. I could see why.

The book is set in England in 1666 and based on the true story of a small English village that saw an outbreak of the plague. After it became clear that the epidemic had visited their doorstep, the villagers made the striking and courageous decision to barricade themselves in. A local earl left provisions for them at the town's Boundary Stone so they wouldn't starve. Anyone with a special need would leave a note (or in the case of the illiterate, a small sample of what they had run out of)and money.

The effects of an epidemic on society continue to fascinate people. In this story, told through the eyes of the minister's servant Anna, you see acts of heroism, acts of greed, of violence and fear, of kindness and courage. To be sure, there's lots of nasty stuff in this book. There's a hanging, a death from exposure after an individual was fixed to a post with a knife through his hands, a near-drowning of an infant, a near-death in childbirth, and I left out some of the more disgusting things that turn out to be central elements to the plot.

Speaking of which...that's one of the best parts of this book. The basic outcome is pretty much a forgone conclusion. The plague wiped out around 20% of London's population that year, and in the historic Eyam, the death toll was more like 75%. Yet, it has a forward momentum of its own. You keep turning the pages to see what's going to happen, even though you already sort of know. The characters are strong and intriguing, even if the narrator is a bit cliched. Just once, I'd love to read a book set in the Middle Ages or Colonial America narrated by a woman who does NOT have a keen mind and love for learning uncharacteristic of women of her time.

But if Anna gets on your nerves at all, there are lots of other people in this book. The ancient herbalist woman and her niece, who live at the edge of town and are called on whenever there's an illness or a childbirth. Anna's drunken, no-good father and stepmother. The strong, determined minister and his equally compassionate, determined wife. Anna's lodger, the sexy and clever tailor who brought the doom to the village. The orphaned Quaker girl with nothing to her name except a lead mine, which is in danger of being poached and claimed until Anna and the minister's wife heroically intervene.

One aspect of the books I read that I rarely mention is the language itself. I guess it's because language is a bit like sound design for a movie: when it's well-done, you generally don't even notice it's there at all. This is sort of a different case, though. It's hard for modern writers to get the linguistic feel for the way people talked long ago. Some writers choose to avoid the issue and just write it "straight." Others make it sound too stiff and flowery, so that you have a small-town servant talking like Shakespeare. Brooks found a good balance. The villagers' voices are down to earth, yet they use words in their old sense. Brooks even employs some no-longer-heard slang (it took me most of the book to realize that "choused" is a word sort of similar to "cheated" or "tricked.")

All in all, I reccomend Year of Wonders. I even forgive its rather off-the-wall ending. The book raises still-pertinent questions of what it means to live in a society and how far one's duty to one's neighbors extends. Each villager, in the Year of Wonders, finds his or her own answer, but none are without consequences.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Hook Brings You Back

Something I’ve been thinking about lately: “What words/phrases in a blurb make a book irresistible? What words/phrases will make you put the book back down immediately?”

It's hard to think of too many that make a book immediately irresistible, but I can think of a few that make books very resistable. "Confronting the past," for example. Or "confronting demons," or confronting pretty much anything while in the process of doing something else. Anything that looks overly dolorous, or as if it was inspired by an episode of Oprah, I avoid. For example, books on the effect of a child's death on a couple's marriage.

It's changed a bit as I've gotten older, too. For instance, I used to eat up books about young women making their way in the world with a big spoon. Devil Wears Prada, The Second Assistant, Citizen Girl, I read them all. I started to sour on them after that last one, which is still my ultimate example of a bad book aimed at women. After a while, they started to depress me, and make me feel old and curmudgeonly. Is no one teaching these kids that they have to start at the bottom? Why are these kids so entitled and self-centered? And why won't they get off my lawn?

What can always intrigue me is a book about something outside the ordinary realm of most people's experiences. I'm not talking about books about other cultures. They're just living their lives, too. Books like Sarah Bird's The Flamenco School, or the odd upbringing of the twins in The Thirteenth Tale. I like books where it's clear that the author has really used his or her imagination.

But I guess I also don't take blurbs too seriously. I skim them to get a general sense of what the book's going to be about, and then I go from there.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Life in Obscurity

Sometimes, the most interesting biographical subjects are those that are relatively obscure. Such is the case with the strange and amazing life of piano prodigy Ervin Nyiregyhazi (pronounced Neer-edge-hah-zee), chronicled in Lost Genius: The Curious and True Story of an Extraordinary Musical Talent by Kevin Bazzana.

Nyiregyhazi was born in 1903, in Hungary. He was an extraordinary piano talent, and his social-climbing parents were quick to cash in. Like Mozart before him and Micahel Jackson after, he was paraded around, held to a grueling performance schedule and forced to be the primary support of the family. And like both men, it messed him up, too. It wasn't just all the attention at an early age, but the weird dichotomy of his expected behavior: in some respects, he had to be absolutely adult. If he was scared before a performance, he wasn't supposed to hide or cry; if he didn't want to perform, he wasn't allowed to back out. But his marketability lay in the very fact of him being a child. His mother made him wear long hair and short pants years after social norms dictated that he dress in a more adult fashion. She forbade him from doing much of anything other than practicing, and the forbidden activities ran the gamut from chess to sex. Astonishingly, he was fifteen when he learned the most basic facts about where babies came from and the differences between male and female bodies.

With this odd upbringing, which combined overprotection with exploitation, it's no wonder he grew up screwed up. From his parents, he learned that he was special, a genius, an aristocrat, and entitled to the best. Yet he was so sheltered that he had almost no resources to guarantee his own future. He was taken advantage of by various women, and by unscrupulous and incompetent managers. He crumbled under the slightest criticism, developed terribly anxiety and paranoia, but never lost his taste for finer things or his huge sexual appetite. He married ten times, had numerous long-term affairs, and frequented brothels the way most people frequent grocery stores.

But always, there was the music. Often, he didn't want to perform, and often, the public didn't want him, but it was always a part of his life. He was a prolific composer as well as performer, and wrote pieces based on the most mundane experiences ("The Installation of the Telephone," for example). Nyiregyhazi came of age when the worth of Liszt and Grieg was still being hotly debated, when it was possible to shock audiences with performaces of classical music, and these chapters particularly intrigued me. His brief renaissance, in the late 1970s, was not so much an effort at recognition as at preservation of a "last voice from a bygone era." In hearing his playing, people believed they were listening to the last of the Romantic-era pianists.

As interesting as his life was, the book could be dull at times. I'm not sure whether it's the fault of the biographer or not, but Nyiregyhazi's personality never fully jumps off the page. He ultimately passes the Maxwell Perkins test -- by the end of the book, you would indeed know him if you met him on the street, and know how to respond -- but it takes a long while to get there. And a large portion of his life was simply not that interesting. Petty scraping to get by, life in cheap hotels, staying indoors and eating at rotten coffee shops (as long as they don't play Muzak!) is not really the stuff of great literature. It's really the bookends of Nyiregyhazi's life that are interesting: his bizarre childhood, and his unlikely renaissance at the end of his life. Most of his ten marriages aren't even that interesting.

Still, if you like classical music, this one's worth a read. And if you like sad Hollywood stories about faded stars, this one's also worth a read, for it gives sort of an inside view of how one can wind up there, even without excessive chemical assistance.

Friday, October 23, 2009

More Booking: Five Minutes Alone With...

One Question October 22, 2009
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 1:38 am

If you could ask your favorite author (alive or dead) one question … who would you ask, and what would the question be?

A terrific question. I actually had the chance this spring to ask a question of one of my favorite authors, Tony Horwitz. He spoke at a private high school in my hometown, and I went and got my books signed. I asked him about his newest book, and why he didn't have a traveling companion as he did in Confederates in the Attic and Blue Horizons. The answer was mere happenstance. He said that he hadn't planned to travel with the memorable hardcore re-enactor in Attic, it just kind of worked out, and that his liver barely survived his pan-Pacific adventures with Roger.

But I don't know who else I would ask a question of. The real question, "How do you make it all happen?" has proven time and time again to be unanswerable. In interviews, writers say that they can be inspired by virtually anything. A. Manette Ansay wrote Blue Water after giving birth to a child. The child is fine, to this day, as is her marriage, but somehow her mind got on the track of "what if it died? what wild dream might my husband and I fulfill to escape the pain? how might it affect our marriage and our other relationships? what if the person who was responsible was a friend of mine?" All that, just from having a baby, when the majority of people who have babies don't produce a book like that. It's remarkable to see what someone like Alice Munro has done with just a relatively ordinary childhood.

But there is one writer that I'm curious about. I can't even call her my "favorite" writer, because she only wrote one book. Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, wrote a splendid book that's required reading in nearly every junior high and high school across America, which was turned into a top-100 film that's still beloved 40 years after its release, and into a frequently-performed play. Yet, so far, she hasn't written anything else. I'd like to know, why not? Has she tried, and it hadn't gone well? Did the success of her initial book scare her? Did she simply not have anything left? Or does she still write, and simply not seek publication for her books? (This is what I suspect, personally. I don't know why I think this, but I imagine there will be tons of new material released after she passes away). And if so, why not, and what does she write about? So I guess that's what I'd ask her.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Booking Through...yeah.

If you're wondering where I've been, well, so am I. Working every night, hanging out with my family, bracing for winter, seeking a better job, reading, playing WoW...all of these places, I guess. And I've neglected my poor blog, using it as more of a "favorites" tab for my links than anything else.

The book I'm on right now is not bad, but it's taking me a while to get through. It's not the kind that sets you on fire, but I did think highly enough of it to reccomend it to a piano-loving co-worker (it's about a child prodigy, and what became of him when he grew up).

So, in the meantime, I give you my thoughts on...

Weeding October 15, 2009
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 7:06 am

We’re moving in a couple weeks (the first time since I was 9 years old), and I’ve been going through my library of 3000+ books, choosing the books that I could bear to part with and NOT have to pack to move. Which made me wonder…

When’s the last time you weeded out your library? Do you regularly keep it pared down to your reading essentials? Or does it blossom into something out of control the minute you turn your back, like a garden after a Spring rain?

Or do you simply not get rid of books? At all? (This would have described me for most of my life, by the way.)

And–when you DO weed out books from your collection (assuming that you do) …what do you do with them? Throw them away (gasp)? Donate them to a charity or used bookstore? SELL them to a used bookstore? Trade them on Paperback Book Swap or some other exchange program?

Weeding out is hard to do! Oddly, I enjoy doing it for other people. I helped my parents weed out two huge closets in their house this spring, and was astonished by the amount of stuff that went straight in the trash. Directions to the homes of people who'd moved twenty years ago. Newspapers, receipts and other detritus that had gotten stowed in the closet for expendiency's sake prior to a long-passed dinner party. Stuff like that.

But when it comes to my own stuff, I'm much less resolute. Maybe I'll WANT the pictures off that 2007 calendar someday. It was a nice one!

I do all right with books, though. The best defense against drowning in crap books is a good offense, and I'm pretty selective about my purchases. I often try to sell books on I'm willing to re-list them repeatedly, but when all else fails, they generally get donated to the library to be sold. I don't pare down often. Usually what spurs it is the need to clear room for more!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Stale BTT: To Tell the Truth

Wouldn't it figure: for the first time in a month, I feel like doing a Booking Through Thursday topic, and there isn't one. I hope the moderator of that site is OK. Maybe she'll post one up later on today, but for now, I'm going to do last week's, which is as follows:

Would You Lie? October 1, 2009

Suggested by Monibo:

Saw this article (from March) and thought it would make a good BTT confessional question:

Two-thirds of Brits have lied about reading books they haven’t. Have you? Why? What book?

Honestly? I'm too chickenshit to lie about stuff like that. I hear my co-workers doing it on the phone every night: "Last week's concert was phenomenal, wasn't it?" All the while, I'm thinking, " You didn't go, you gave your comp tickets to me, remember?" I don't do that myself, because I'm afraid the patron will want to discuss it. A well-known singer who was popular around 40 years ago recently performed with the orchestra I work for, and I honestly sweat bullets every time I have to talk with someone about that concert, because I can barely conjure up any of his songs.

So it's sort of the same thing with books. In college, of course, I did implicitly "lie" a few times about having done the reading. I don't think there's a degree-holder out there who hasn't. But in casual conversation, I always admit to not having read something. I figure it's better to look like a mere idiot than an idiot and a liar.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Back...with a vengeance!

I suppose the title of this post could apply to both myself (who cleared her $27 debt to the library and is now in good standing again) and to the author of the book I just finished last night.

You all remember Wally Lamb. It's been about 15 years since everyone on the planet was carting around his debut, She's Come Undone, a sad, eloquent novel about a woman's lifelong struggle to deal with a childhood rape, parents' divorce and mother's death and lead a healthy, normal life. His follow-up, This Much I know Is True, came out a year or two later, and was written from the point of view of a man whose twin brother is schizophrenic.

Then, for a long time, nothing. Until now. The Hour I First Believed weighs in at 700+ pages, and has so much in it that it's difficult to even talk about, or summarize. The book spans ten years of real time, with flashbacks ranging as far back as the Civil War. It takes as its themes addiction, mental illness, recovery from trauma, sexual abuse, and the treatment of female prisoners. Like I said, there's a lot in this book.

The story begins with Caelum and Maureen Quirk. The marriage is a do-over for both parties, not only in the sense that they've been married to other people before, but that they have been married to each other before. Maureen is a school nurse and reformed adultress. Caelum is a school teacher, and my initial impression of him was that he was also an asshole. Unpleasant to his wife, unpleasant to the more initially intruguing Velvet Hoon (a student with a troubled past), even not terribly pleasant or responsive to his Aunt Lolly, who basically raised him. My views softened a bit over the course of the book, but I wasn't that far off about him. Caelum and Maureen work together, at an upper-middle-class high school in Colorado, called Columbine.

Familiar events set the plot in motion. On the day of the shootings, Caelum was out of town because his Aunt Lolly had just died. Maureen was in the library, having taken Velvet there to help her re-enroll in high school. Maureen hid in a cabinet, heard the whole thing, and was never the same again. The rest of the book focuses on how she, Caelum and Velvet each worked on putting their lives and relationships back together after that day.

It's hard to say too much about the plot. It encompasses long-past events (a subplot with Caelum's grandmother, a women's prison reformer, that I'm ashamed to say I never really clocked) and current ones. Everything that's happened in the past ten years since Columbine touch Caelum's life in some way: Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, September 11th. The book was wonderful. Lamb really knows how to draw readers in: even though I thought Caelum was an asshole, he was at least an INTERESTING asshole, surrounded by interesting people, and that gave the book momentum. He clearly put a great deal of work into the tale, and there is some beautiful plot symmetry. The post-traumatic stress of one of his Iraqi vet students, for example, echoed in his great-grandmother's journal from her stint as a Civil War nurse, and also in his father's alcoholism. Velvet Hoon as a teen writing a short story about her grandfather's stone-cutting work in the cemetery where she used to give blow jobs for cash, then finding peace and happiness working for a sculptor as a young adult.

But it's a lot to wrap one's head around. There was a subplot with some long-buried mild sexual abuse of Caelum that never really developed, and that I could have done without. The ending of the book, as well, hits like a freight train and almost seemed a bit of a cop-out. And I didn't really care for the fact that he gave characters from his previous novels walk-on roles in this one. It seemed a bit unneccesary, too. But overall, it was an excellent, if somber, read.