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!