Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Potato peels and wartime

I mentioned earlier this month that all six of the book clubs in my coverage area have had a go at The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society this year, and decided it was my turn, too. I finished it last night, and found it enjoyable and funny.

Guernsey is a classic epistolary novel, told through a series of letters. Juliet is a columnist and author who lives in London. World War II has just ended and things are slowly settling back to normal. She's much relieved to have new subject matter (she's had a difficult assignment, writing an observational humor column during wartime to keep everyone's spirits up, even though she lost her ex-fiance and her apartment was bombed) and an idea for her new book comes from a surprising place: the Channel Island of Guernsey.

All I knew of Guernsey was their cows, so I was intrigued. After reading the novel, I'm not sure how much more I know, but I did learn that they were occupied by the Germans during WWII and nearly starved (maybe. I'll have to look it up, after the incident with the movie "Millions" when I was shocked to learn that Britain never converted to the Euro.) Juliet was intrigued by the presence of Potato Peel Pie in the society's title, and so was I. It dates back to the spontaneous founding of the Society, when one of its members held a secret pig roast that kept them out after curfew. On the way home, several of the Islanders were detained by German police, and one of them invented the literary society on the spot.

When the policeman asked to attend their next gathering, they had to create one, and one recalcitrant member stated that he wouldn't join unless there was food involved. Potato peel pie has potato peels as the 'crust' and mashed potato filling. After the war, one of the members contacts Juliet because he owns a book she had given away, and he wanted to know if she knew more about the author. They strike up a correspondance, and as Juliet learns more about wartime Guernsey, she decides it would make a perfect book and travels to the island, where she finds (predictably) romance and a home.

What makes this book are the characters, and the added elements of war and of books sustaining one through a difficult time (the initial subject Juliet asks them to muse upon). It's more lighthearted and entertaining than a book involving genocide, oppression and war has any right to be, but its tone never feels inappropriate. I can see why it's so popular among book clubs, but I have to say that while I found it a good read, I did not find it terribly thought-provoking and wonder what the clubs discuss.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Girls who like Girls

So, it's a bit off my usual fare, but I wanted to make a note of something that made me happy recently. I've talked on here before about how I play WoW. A new expansion has just come out and they've made quite a few changes, including making everyone get five more levels and raise their profession skills. The profession skills I picked back when I first started my character were mining and jewelcrafting. Mining is easy to skill up: just mine whatever you see. Jewelcrafting takes more time, and there is a daily quest for that profession. There are five or six different ones, and you get a random one each time you go.

The questgiver is a female blood elf named Marith Lazuria. She is stationed outside the jewelry shop in the main city (Horde city anyway). WoW gets criticized a lot for using sex to sell the game to guys, and all the criticism is absolutely justified. The female blood elves are sort of the Playboy Bunnies of the game. Gear that looks normal on other races fits them like clothing rejected by a stripper as being too provocative.

But. When I went down to see Marith Lazuria yesterday, she had a quest for me titled "A Present for Lila." She explained that she was trying to impress a female boat captain named Lila and wanted me to cut some purple gems that she was going to fashion into a necklace 'to match her pretty hair.' When I turned the quest in, Marith expressed glee that she'd now be able to turn her special lady's head, that she had a huge advantage now over a female rival in the Alliance capital, and also said something that implied Lila only had one eye (but that's sort of besides the point).

I loved it. I thought it was terrific that the game developers decided to put a lesbian NPC in the game and not make a big deal out of it. You do many similar quests to help an NPC man impress a woman, and I think a few vice versa, and they just fit this one right in. Studies have shown that WoW has a large adult player base, but a lot of teens play it too. Since many people say they value its escape from real life, I imagine that maybe some of the teens who play are questioning or working up the courage to come out and value the game as a haven from harassment. Maybe seeing this will help them.

It seems like there are so few images of gay and lesbian people just being *people*, not being campy or conforming to some stereotype, or where their gayness is an essential part of the character. Marith is just another female blood elf with an impressive rack, long hair and diaphonous dress making players run around doing her bidding. I think that the inclusion of more images like that in pop culture is an essential step towards greater acceptance. Marith's presence in the game is a reminder that everyone should do what they can to promote acceptance. Every day when I go to find out what she wants of me today, I will view her as a reminder that if the developers of a notoriously sexist fantasy game found a way to do what they could, I can too.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I am Hutterite

I'm posting tonight mostly because I want to, not because I've got anything earthshattering. I did finish one of the books from my last post, though: I Am Hutterite by Mary-Ann Kirkby.

Kirkby faced a dilemma in writing this book. She was raised in a Hutterite community until the age of 8, and wrote this book a couple of decades after her family left. She stayed in touch with her friends from the community, but the fact remains that she had at most four years of really solid memories to draw on, and had to get the rest from her family and Hutterite friends. And unfortunately, it kind of shows. With a couple of exceptions, the Hutterite portions read exactly as if the person writing them just asked around about community life. They're well-written and interesting, but they don't have that emotional depth and 'insider' feeling that the title and jacket of the book lead the reader to expect.

The central figure in the family's decision to leave is also ambiguous. In some chapters, he's a tyrant: the horrible man who gave them a hard time about seeking asthma care for one of their children and deliberately withheld crucial information about the health of a different child, leading to its death. In other chapters, though, he's an intelligent, respected leader, beloved by everyone, who has the author over for Christmas Eve and is good with children. But the conflict there is never really explored.

When I fail to connect with a book, I often blame myself, and this time is no exception. I read the short book over a period of about two weeks, a handful of pages here, a page there, a chapter before bed: who can connect with anything read in that manner? Yet: the book also didn't reach out and grab me, the way After the Falls by Catherine Gildiner and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers did. With those books, all I wanted to do was read them, yet I never wanted to reach the end. This one didn't do that for me.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Stench of Death: last weekend's library haul

Dark times are upon our library system. Our county executive called for the system's budget to be slashed, causing public outcry but suspiciously low-key response from the institution's trustees. At the eleventh hour, county legislators voted to restore the funding that had been slashed. Our county executive is notorious, though, for simply ignoring things of that nature. Yeah, he's an asshole.

But the plan that was devised to deal with these cuts entails cutting hours at a good portion of their branches. At the branch I frequent, however, they decided to cut not hours but services. They have a wonderful humanities/nonfiction collection that's very fun to walk through. On the second floor, they have a large collection of business and employment-related resources for all levels of the job market. Whether you're the type who needs a book to tell you to shower and dress nicely for a job interview, or whether you're looking for pointers on how to start your own company, that section of the library can help. What they're doing is closing that floor, moving a good portion of the job stuff into the humanities, and kicking the humanities stuff into closed stacks.

This transition was well underway when I wandered through the doors last weekend. Lots and lots of empty shelves. Fewer employees around, already. Very sad stuff.

Anyway, I got a fair amount of books, although it was another one of those visits where the majority of my haul was of dubious interest past the initial impulse. So here's the list:

Vamp: the rise and fall of Theda Bara by Eve Golden. I know the name from the Country Bear Jamboree at Disneyworld (it features a "Teddy Beara"). Like Runnin' Wild, the documentary also inspired me to pick this one out.

Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild by David Stenn. Covered elsewhere on this blog.

Accordian Crimes by Annie Proulx. I like her a lot, and believe this is the only one I haven't read.

Hadrian's Wall: a novel by William Dietrich. It seems that I don't really see too many books about that period in England. I've seen the real thing, it'd be neat to know a little more about it.

The Blue Moon Circus by Michael Raleigh. This is a re-read. I can vividly remember getting it out of the Schenectady Library when I was doing my internship, lying on my loaned bed in my small apartment with the train noises drifting in through the open window, reading this book. It was just a joy. I bumped into it accidentally, grabbed it just to look at it again, and simply could not put it back.

Disco Boy by Dominc Knight. Goddamn this one. It was a seven-day book that I had no interest in one I got it home, but I kept it for three days too long. Nothing sucks worse than paying fines on something you didn't read.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer. Part of my newspaper job is processing all the events that come in from the library, the senior center and the community at large. I think every single book club that submits has read this one. I decided to find out why.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Due to my newfound love of Charles Dickens, a recent Facebook meme about how many books you've read off a list purportedly developed by the BBC, and the season in general, I picked this one up.

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah. I have no idea WTF it's about but love the title. I also noticed that book clubs around here read this.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I'd always assumed this was some sort of crappy romantic melodrama. Then the movie came out and I found it what it was really about. Sounds cool, and creepy as hell.

I am Hutterite: the fascinating true story of a... by Mary-Ann Kirkby. The receipt cuts off the subtitle. But I picked this one out as my next read, and am currently about 50 pages in. Subcultures and religious communes interest me. I even used to work at a museum that used to be one. I like memoirs, I don't know much about the Hutterites and this one just stood out. A longer review will come, but it's interesting so far. The author does a good job of taking us inside without being too self-conscious and allowing the differences between mainstream and Hutterite cultures to emerge fairly naturally.

So that's my haul. I'm hoping there are some books there the next time I go.

Monday, December 6, 2010

An early victim of Hollywood

I've mentioned before that I enjoy Hollywood stories with a heavy dose of tragedy and ruin. I also enjoy ones, from time to time, that teach something about how the industry used to be, or some inner working of it that normally doesn't get much attention (no one died of a drug overdose in The Devil's Candy, but it was terrific to learn so much about how films are made). Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild by David Stenn does both. It's not only a portrait of a very tragic Hollywood heroine, but gives some clues as to what it was like in the early days of the film industry.

I got the idea to look for this book by watching the TCM documentary "Moguls and Movie Stars," which chronicles the first 60 or so years of the industry. Clara Bow was briefly mentioned in one of the chapters, how her wild reputation caught up to her and she was forced into retirement well before her 30th birthday. It got me wanting to know more, so when I saw this book at my library, I was all over it.

David Stenn did meticulous research on it, and one feels, did it just in the nick of time. The book came out in the late 1980s. An epilogue tells what became of all the players. In 2010, one can probably say pretty safely that the short answer is "they all died." He was able to conduct a few interviews, access fragile primary sources like fan magazines before they disintegrated, and it's a good thing he did. It's a fascinating story, and one that shouldn't be lost.

Clara Bow came from about the most awful background imaginable. Alcoholic and abusive father, volatile, weak, mentally ill mother who only gave birth to her as a sort of suicide attempt, grinding poverty in a bad part of Brooklyn -- that was Clara's background. In an incident that not only could have been the plot of a film, but I think actually was the plot of several, she won a contest at the age of 16 sponsored by a film magazine, with the first prize being a role in a movie. That was her big break.

Stenn shows her as exploited by nearly everyone around her. The film studios realized almost immediately that she was a huge draw and that she was uneducated, naive and easily taken adavantage of. So they did, working her as hard as they could for as little money as possible. Her father spent the rest of his life both controlling her and sponging off her. Many of the men she was romantically linked with were more interested in headlines than in a relationship.

He also plays up what a big star she was, in a way very different from the megastardom our own fragmented culture has to offer. Most of the country went to the movies every single week during the 1920s. And it was proven over and over that people would go see any piece of shit starring Clara Bow. Stenn says that she was caught in a very odd conundrum: being such a strong draw through her personality, the studios were unwilling to squander a strong script on her, since audiences would turn up to watch her wash dishes for the length of a film. Hers didn't need a good leading actor, a strong plot or anything else, just her. As a result, most of her movies were rather crappy and few survive.

An inside view of the calamity that talkies caused is also a high point of this biography of Bow. Stenn relates how the only man in Paramount Studios who understood sound recording suddenly had his salary increased tenfold and became the most feared and respected man on the lot until Paramount wisely took away his power by getting more people trained. The early technology was cumbersome and overly sensitive and actors had to learn their craft all over again.

Clara suffered from persistent "mike fright" that would tie her tongue even on simple lines. On the set of one of her final films, she breaks down over her inability to read a line after repeated tries, grabs the boom mike and punches it until crew members pry her off, at which point she flees to her trailer and collapses. The line she was trying to say? "You can't do this to us."

There was a great deal of scandal about Clara, too, at a time when that was not tolerated at all. The scandal, her mike fright, and the fact that the studio had pushed her too hard for too many years combined. She did indeed leave film at a young age. She married Rex Bell and had two sons with him, but it turned out that her problems were more serious than overwork and a high-pressure environment. She was diagnosed as a schizophrenic at an inpatient facility. She lived apart from her family with a nurse after that, and died in the 1960s of a heart attack.

I mention this because I thought the denouement was just as interesting as the rest of her story. I'm glad that Stenn went into the amount of detail that he did (there are over 40 pages of notes). It's a lively story, and will join the ranks of the autobiographies of Lana Turner and Lillian Gish for well-told Hollywood tales.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Shop local today

You may have seen the AmEx ads on TV that indicate that today is Small Business Saturday. Sandwiched between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, it's a day to go out and support your local small business.

I didn't know that this was all AmEx's idea, but it's a good one. These days, chain stores seem to offer everything. They have the huge parking lots, the extended hours, the deep discounts, and the proximity to coffee shops and bars. The downside is that you deeply need a drink after going into one of those, especially during the holiday season. I don't know about you, but I always leave feeling stressed out and reminded of how much more I have to do.

Another thing chain stores can't offer you is diversity. Someone on your list has asked for new living room lamps, for example, so you go to look at them at Target or Home Depot. As you pick one up and hold it, imagining it in your friend's living room, millions of people across the country are doing the exact same thing. There's nothing special, really, about the lamp you're going to buy.

To tie it in to books, it's even worse in bookstores. Recently, I visited my local indie bookstore for the first time in about a year. On display were a plethora of books that Barnes and Noble just doesn't carry. Books on radical politics, the history of the LGTB movement in vaudeville, interesting things like that. Why would they? There's no profit margin in it. Speaking of which, ever look for anything in there recently that's not a novel, a children's book, or some sort of study guide or computer book? Their nonfiction section seems to be smaller every time I go there.

And I know the argument is that you can just order it online, but that takes the serendipity out of it. A few years ago, I read a terrific book about tortoises. I didn't read it because I woke up one morning in the mood to know more about tortoises. I didn't decide to seek out a book on tortoises. I just ran across it at the library. It was a terrific book. I learned more than I ever thought there might be to know about their role in human history.

And as far as economic arguments go for shopping local, other people have made them much better than I ever could, with far more math and better statistics. The bottom line is that if you buy local, local people work. They reinvest in the community at a higher rate. If you live in a struggling city like I do, your support may help make the difference between the business owners staying in town and packing up to move someplace with more promise. It also helps make your community cooler. Who doesn't love the charm of a strip of funky, locally owned stores?

So, go out and support yours today. Invest in your community and get unique gifts for your family and friends in the process!

Friday, November 26, 2010

A failed experiment

When I settled in Monday night to wait for my dinner with my library book, a slow feeling of horror began to wash over me. It was the exact same feeling I'd get when I was doing my internship in Stockbridge on Saturday mornings. There, we had no TV or internet, my roommate Sophie and I were reliant on books and on one another for our entertainment. The library closed at 1 p.m. on Saturdays and didn't reopen until Monday. So that was my last chance to find something or else it'd be a long weekend indeed, and not the good kind.

I realized almost immediately that Shelly Jackson's "Half Life" was going to be terrible. But I had nothing else with me and was going to be there for about 45 minutes. So I read about 75 pages of this failed experiment.

It could have been interesting. The jacket said it was about siamese twins Nora and Blanche. It said that they were very different: Nora was lively and outgoing, whereas Blanche had been sleeping for 15 years. I was unsure of what that might mean, but it turns out that it's as literal as anything gets in this quicksand of a book. I tried to explain this to my co-worker:

"Wait, so she's dead?"
"No, she's just asleep."
"You mean, in a coma?"
"I guess...sort of...but I don't think so. I think she's just asleep."

Meanwhile, Nora has been going about her life. She is not alone as she would be in our society. "Twofers" have become more common, and it's vaguely explained that "the radiation" has something to do with it. There's a movement, actually, and a community. It seems sort of satirical at first: there's a big convention in town, and radical people like to address her as 'tyou,' as in 'Are tyou going to the film premiere tonight?' Her roommate is described as a 'twin hag.' I guess it had promise.

I'm at a loss to explain why it didn't work, maybe it was the muddy, confusing failed magic realism of Nora and Blanche's birth and conception. Maybe it was because Nora wasn't fleshed out enough as a character, either: we know that she plans to seek separation, that she does phone sex for a living, and that she has two roommates (not counting the permanent one), also, that she's a lesbian, but that's about it. Or maybe it's the rest of the world that's not fleshed out enough. I don't know. It was an odd book, and maybe others will want to give it a go, but it wasn't for me. It's going back, unread, this weekend.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thankful Thanksgiving

Just wanted to pop on to wish whatever readership I may have a happy Thanksgiving!

Usually people who make blog or FB posts on Thanksgiving list what they are thankful for. And it's not that I'm not thankful for all of the positive things in my life, but today I wanted to talk about something a bit different.

When I was growing up, my mom's mother lived about 20 minutes away from us. She had a small house with a finished basement and a garage you could hang out in during the summer (I've since learned that this is purely a Polish phenomenon. People of other ethnicities just don't do this, even if all of their neighbors do.) We spent all of our Thanksgivings with her when I was growing up. We'd have dinner over there. She'd turn the kitchen table into a buffet and we'd take our plates downstairs. My aunt and uncle would be there with their two sons that were much younger than us. I don't have distinct memories of hanging out there all day or anything, so I'm guessing we didn't do that.

My grandmother died when I was 12. She had lung cancer (please everybody, quit now if you smoke, and don't even think about starting if you don't. She wasn't even old enough to collect Social Security yet.) As it happens when someone dies, over the years, they become less and less of a presence in your lives and your minds. The holes they leave in your lives close slowly. You make new traditions, the holidays change but they're still good.

Thanksgiving was one that never really closed for me. It's never been the same since. My aunt, uncle and cousins started having Thanksgiving with my uncle's side of the family. My other grandparents live on the other end of the state. Until their death, we made an extended visit out there at Christmas, and going at Thanksgiving too wasn't practical. For a long time, my parents and sister and I would go see a movie on Thanksgiving. Somewhere along the line, my sister generally stopped coming home for Thanksgiving, and the three of us would go...or we wouldn't.

I read a column by Mitch Albom a couple of years ago where he talked about how much Thanksgiving had shrunk as he got older, how fewer and fewer people came every year and spent less time, and now the focus for a lot of people was just going through the Black Friday sale fliers and going to bed early enough to be up for the 4 a.m. sales. He referenced the great, underrated 1991 movie "Avalon," which profiled a large immigrant family over the years. In the opening scene, at the dawn of television, the family was bursting out of the dining room, chairs and tables were pulled from everywhere, the famous kids' table all the way in the living room, where mayhem ruled. By the end, it was a handful of people clustered around the TV, eating off trays.

In that family, it was mostly feuds, people moving away, and TV itself that caused the demise of Thanksgiving. I guess in ours, it was just that some losses, you never quite recover from. Our tradition with my grandma wasn't big and mythical. There weren't really any funny stories or memorable stories that came out of it. It was just being together that made the day special. I still appreciate that with my own family. This year, my sister will have it with us for the first time in I don't know how long, and I'm looking forward to that. But I'll always think of my grandma on this day.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Caution: do not read after midnight

It's become a Halloween tradition for me to watch Turner Classic Movies' lineup while I pass out the candy and eat my dinner. They always show terrific old scary movies. This year, I watched the majority of "House of Wax" and caught the end of a really old one where Vincent Price played a deranged magician and set himself on fire at the end. But next up was "The House on Haunted Hill," which I'd just caught the Rifftrax/Mystery Science Theater version of not four days earlier. I took a break from the scary movies and came in on the last half hour of "The Haunting." It was super-scary, though, and I went to the library the next day to get both the film and the book versions.

Both were terrific. Both are still extremely scary, despite the movie being 45 years old and the book being closer to 60. And both are psychological thrillers. There's no gore whatsoever.

The story is the tale of a party of four, come to research supernatural phenomena at Hill House one summer. Luke Sanderson is the spoiled playboy heir of the opulent, creepy home. Dr. Montague is the academic who put the whole thing together. Theodora and Eleanor are two very different women who were selected from a pool of people by Dr. Montague that had been associated with past supernatural phenomena. Theodora created a sensation by participating in an experiment where she sat in a room and tried to guess which card a researcher was holding up in a separate room. She guessed nearly all of them right. Theodora is outgoing, fliratatious and funny.

Eleanor is the opposite. When she was a child, a storm of rocks fell on her home, and only hers, for days. That was the last interesting thing to happen to the repressed 32-year-old woman. She spent most of her adult life controlled by her invalid mother, waiting on her slavishly. Had it not been for the invitation to Hill House, she probably would have spent the rest of it under the thumb of her sister. And it's her that the house ultimately wants as its own.

The four start out on friendly terms, enjoying one another's company, gently mocking the creepy caretakers and playing chess and bridge. As the house begins to work on them, they begin to quarrel more. It has a strange, unpredicatble effect on them. It doesn't merely scare the shit out of them. That would be too obvious, too simplistic, and would raise the question of why they don't just leave. Their nights fill with terror, but their days fill with euphoria and peace, leaving them to doubt what happens at night, and to doubt one another.

The differences between the book and the original film are not huge. (I have yet to see the remake with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lili Taylor). I was hoping for a bit more backstory on Hill House in the book, as they give you just enough to pique your curiosity. The character of Dr. Montague's wife is probably the largest difference. In the movie, she's a skeptic who gets sort of kidnapped by the house. In the book, she's an avid psychic researcher, but of a different sort, fond of using a planchette and telling the spirits how much she loves them and how she is their friend. They both leave me craving more, and both like to replay in my head when I wake up at 4 a.m.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


I think I've talked on here before about how much I generally hate the Harry Potter movies, even though I love the books, even though I went to midnight release parties for the last three books (I got interested in the series the summer Goblet of Fire came out). Most of them have been pretty terrible. Although the casting has been terrific, they cut out all the wrong things. I knew we weren't going to get along from the first movie, when they eliminated Hermione's hero scene, where she solved Snape's logic puzzle.

I hated how in the third movie, he figured out the Patronus spell right away. It took him most of the term in the book, it's like an eighth grader trying to calculus, and it took away from the psychological journey of it all, because that was the book where he had to confront what happened to his parents and decide how it would affect the rest of his life.

In the fifth movie...I don't really remember the fifth movie.

In the sixth movie, they actually cut out the fight scene back at the castle following Dumbledore's death. They had Bellatrix smashing shit in the Great Hall, which is totally out of character. Bellatrix is a sadist and a suck-up, and I always thought she was a bit in love with Voldemort. She's not the type to just break stuff out of spite. They didn't show enough backstory about Voldemort, and they cut one of the scariest scenes in the books, where Dumbledore drinks the potion and trips out and starts pleading with some unseen attacker and asking him, or Harry, to kill him.

But they finally got it right in the first part of HP7. They staged some stuff that just happens in summary dialogue, probably most notably the scene at the beginning when Hermione modifies her parents' memory for their own protection, editing herself out. The Death Eater's meeting is scarier onscreen than it is in the book. All of their interiors were terrific: the Burrow, Malfoy Manor, Bathilda Bagshot's home, the Lovegoods' house. Because there's so much travel in this one, they get some great exterior shots too.

I absolutely loved this movie, in fact, the more I think about it. Sure, there were some things I would have liked to have seen that weren't there, but overall, they made excellent choices about what to film and what to cut. The characters were more true to the books: Fred and George were funnier, Hermione seemed smarter and nicer, Ron was much more lovable. I actually think I'm going to see it again, and I've never done that for any other Harry Potter.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Rich are Different: the tale of the Vanderbilts

Dead End Gene Pool, a memoir by Wendy Burden, was the sort of book I wanted to read from the moment I heard about it. As she says in her introduction, the rich behaving badly are fun to read about it. After I finished the book, I'm not 100% sure that 'fun' would thoroughly describe it.

Wendy is the great x8 (or something like that) grand-daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt. In the introduction, she traces her lineage more precisely. But her dad's side of the family is definitely Old Money. For all that, though, her dad gets almost no screen time, and that's reflective of Wendy's life: he killed himself when she was only 6. She spends the next three years in Burdenland with her grandparents and her brother, whom they favor almost to the point of cruelty.

Those parts are a little hard to read, but nevertheless, they're engaging, populated as they are with vodka-swilling servants and crazy uncles. The most complex character that emerges is Wendy's mother. When we first meet her, she seems sort of stereotypical: after her husband's suicide, she becomes a sort of wealthy playgirl, obsessed with tanning, fashion and alcohol, never around much for her kids, more interested in the man of the moment. All this changes when she marries her late husband's autocratic, arms-dealing best friend and moves the children back in. It changes again when they move to England and she enrolls in Oxford to earn a Ph.D in numismatics. Your opinion of her sort of shifts, too.

In some parts, the book is a bit incoherent. I recently got to interview another memoirist, Catherine Gildiner, and she advised memoir-writers not to worry too much about an inability to remember everything, just start with what they did remember and look to draw connections. Sometimes, I think Burden forced the connections too hard, brought in things that weren't really there. The end, with her once-formidable grandparents much reduced by age, and her brothers descending into drug and alcohol addiction, is heartbreaking.

I did enjoy the book overall, though, even if it wasn't exactly the lighthearted romp or even the dark tale I expected.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

World of Warcrack

When I first saw Ryan VanCleeve's Unplugged at the library, I was pissed. I think I might have even kicked the shelf. I didn't look at the book too closely, I just noted the subject matter, saw it was similar to the book I've sort of been planning to write, and saw red. Good thing I did the next step, which was to actually take it home and read it. Because it's actually not similar at all to the one I want to write, in fact, it sort of gets to why I want to write it.

And therein lies my dilemma in blogging about this book. The book was well-written and absorbing, funny in some parts, heartbreaking in many others, with a very vivid voice. But it also bothers me, because books like Unplugged, chronicling the author's descent into gaming addiction, are the predominant image of people who play online games. It was months before I told my co-workers that I liked to play WoW, and when I did, the first thing they asked is if I was one of those addicts. Positive stories about the game are very, very rare in most media.

Probably the best known is that of Ephoenix. Ephoenix was a character created by a young boy and his father when the boy was very ill with cancer. Between all the treatments, gaming was one of the few things he was still capable of doing. His Make-a-Wish was to visit the Blizzard studios in California. They created a special epic weapon just for him and allowed him to design a quest, which is still in game. (The quest in the tauren starting area where you have to help the farmer find his dog.) Beyond that, though, you never hear the smaller stories about people who fall in love through the game (well, unless one of them is a minor), the people who are disabled or live in the middle of nowhere and have no other way to socialize, and just the people who build strong friendships through the game.

But anyway, the book isn't about that, although to Van Cleeve's credit, he does touch on some of the more positive aspects near the end. It's basically a memoir of his life as first a casual gamer, and then as a true addict, who did 24-hour marathon sessions and neglected his family to play. Interestingly, Van Cleeve doesn't feel that gaming addiction gets enough attention, or is taken seriously enough. I think it's just hard for people to tell the difference.

If you come home from work every day, log right in for 3 hours, then spend the rest of the night puttering around, I think I'm right in saying that's not an addict, anymore than someone who watches TV or reads for those 3 hours is an addict. If you play into the wee morning hours, call off work with gaming hangovers, get the shakes when you can't play, sneak away during your kid's birthday party or your anniversary with your husband to raid, dream about WoW when you're asleep, think about it constantly while you're awake -- that's an addict. That was Van Cleeve.

I don't know how much this book will interest non-gamers, but as a gamer, there's definitely a lot of stuff to think about. I like how he talked to different people about why they responded to the game, and how he analyzed it himself. I honestly have to agree: the best thing about WoW is that, unlike the real world, it never disappoints. The work you put in is rewarded, every time. Work towards raising your reputation with a faction, and you hit exalted, every time. Work towards completing every raid, you'll do it. In The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, the main character observes the woman in her house knitting, embroidering, doing some sort of craft, and comments on how good it is to have small goals that are easily achieved. When you break it down, that's what the game is.

Out in real life, you can work extremely hard and do well and still not get promoted. You can put in a lot of years at a job and suddenly lose your position to budget cuts or outsourcing or any myraid of things. You can work really hard at a marriage, and your spouse will get bored and cheat. You can try for years to have a baby and not be successful. It's nice to have a break from all that murky, messy uncertainty. It's also easy to see how someone could never want to leave.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Good and Bad Writing

I feel like blogging today, so I pulled up this week's BTT. And it's a tricky one:

Suggested by Barbara:

I’ve seen many bloggers say that what draws them to certain books or authors is good writing, and what causes them to stop reading a certain book or author is bad writing. What constitutes good writing and bad writing to you?

Good and bad writing is so hard to define. But I think in a lot of cases people agree on what it is. There is a co-worker whom I admire very much that can make any turkey of an assignment interesting. If her article is boring, you know it's the fault of the topic. She's good at bringing out what's important, even when she's been assigned to write about a spaghetti dinner at some church.

She'll find a way to make it interesting. She'll track down some of the people who've benefitted from the funds raised at previous spaghetti dinners and talk about the affect the church's programs had on their lives. She'll manage to make you feel that even though there are a million spaghetti dinners in our coverage areas every week, this one matters.

Bad writing is a lot easier to define. It's clunky. It trips you up. It's cliche-ridden. It's boring. Often, it's not honest. It kills even an interesting subject, like when you read something that's allegedly a celebrity tell-all, and you know the person's had multiple arrests and stints in rehab, and it's very short on details of that to talk mostly about how they found Jesus.

It dwells on all the wrong things, which was my main complaint with The Swan Thieves. And, incidentally, which is the main complaint about another co-worker, who has a penchant for attending a town board meeting where both a rezoning for a McDonald's is approved and a department head is fired for getting caught having sex with a 19-year-old employee on his desk...and guess which one her story will focus on?

Good writing has the power to make you care passionately about things you may not have even known about. There was a segment a few months ago in the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" section about bats. ZZZZZZzzzzzzZZZZZbats, right? The segment talked about how bats were dying in record numbers from some sort of fungus. The author went with some bat researchers who do a bat census every year and described in vivid detail how unexpectedly quiet the cave was. The last line of her segment described how they walked out of the silent cave, with tiny bones crunching underneath their feet. I had tears in my eyes after reading that. I guess that's what good writing does.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Currently reading?

Last weekend, I was supposed to go to the library on Saturday, but I got a terrible migraine and spent most of the afternoon lying down. I haven't been able to make it there since, but what I do have are piles of partially read magazines floating around, making my house look like the Collyer mansion. Rather than pull of my TBR shelf, I decided to dive into some of them and clean up the joint at the same time. Here are a few things I've read about lately:

A so-so article on Lindsey Lohan in Vanity Fair. Not as dramatic as I'd expected.

A fascinating article on Sarah Palin in the same issue of Vanity Fair. Quite possibly contains the most negative stuff I've ever seen about anyone in one place. It paints a picture of her as controlling, unpredictable, nasty, and manipulative to everyone, even her husband and children. The article noted, most of all, that while hundreds of people have gone on the record to tell what they know about other major political figures like Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, hardly anyone would talk for this article, or in general.

A boring article on leaf-blower controversy in the New Yorker. Not the writer Tad Friend's fault. I just think it's a crappy subject that didn't improve with investigation. I mean, really. People have real problems, and rich people annoyed with the noise that other rich people's gardeners use when maintaining their 'hardscapes' is just awfully difficult to give a crap about.

A well-constructed short story about a stakeout. It had the feel of a real stakeout, where nothing happens for lengthy stretches of time until all hell breaks loose.

An Alice Munro story about a long-term affair. It didn't stay with me the way her stuff usually does.

An insightful article on "the cancer industry." It was one of the New Yorker's terrific book reviews with extended commentary on the subject matter. There is a new book that explores how the disease came to have such a prominent place in our society and our collective unconscious. Given my recent heightened awareness about toxic chemical in daily life, I was pleased to see that the article pointed out the fact that many cancers were tied to toxic exposure, and that to truly win the 'war on cancer,' this will have to be addressed.

An article on Lady Gaga. She interests me. I haven't finished the article yet, in fact, I came up here to post this instead. The thing I would like to know the most about her is how her parents view her success. After all, she attended Catholic school and was only 23 when her current album came out.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

BTT: Halloween Horror?

This week's question:

In honor of Halloween this weekend:

What reading skeletons do you have in your closet? Books you’d be ashamed to let people know you love? Addiction to the worst kind of (fill in cheesy genre here)? Your old collection of Bobbsey Twin Mysteries lovingly stored behind your “grown-up” books? You get the picture … come on, confess!

Honestly, I don't have any books that I'm ashamed to let people know that I love. I shout them loud and proud, pretty much. I love the "Flowers in the Attic" series by V.C Andrews. I still reread them every couple of years. I love "The Dirt" by Motley Crue, and I really want them to write a sequel (I don't think Nikki Sixx's "Heroin Diaries" counts). I enjoy reading Hollywood biographies and autobiographies, but only of the messes. Someone who worked consistently from the age of 25 until their 60s or beyond, stayed married to the same guy she met in her late 20s for her whole life, and enjoyed raising her three happy kids in their beautiful Hollywood home? ZZZZZzzzzzZZZZZ. I want to read about the starlet who was an overnight success, slept with half of Hollywood, lost it all and was found in a seedy motel with a needle in her arm at the age of 27.

But I'm not ashamed of it. Even though I list some "guilty pleasures" on my author list. I'm not ashamed of liking whatever it is I like. I don't think anyone should be. We're programmed so heavily to always act a certain way all the time, and I'm saddened to think this extends to our 'me' time. Can't let anyone know I'm reading Danielle Steele, no way world, I am a Phillip Roth kind of girl! "Keeping up with the Kardashians?" UGH! I was just passing through on my way to PBS. I'm kind of saddened to think that people restrict themselves so much.

Reading is kind of a private thing, typically done in the home, so who are you hiding it from? Your husband? Your kids? I say, let it all hang out, and don't be ashamed to check out those bodice-rippers or spy thrillers or cheesy Hollywood bios along with the rest of your usual fare.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A scary book, just in time for Halloween

I'm a few pages away from finishing the scariest book. I know what they mean now when they talk about not being able to look away, because as scary as it was, I just had to keep reading. The book was about a world where these large faceless corporations were in total control. Somehow, many of the people that lived there were unaware of this. The people at the bottom were forced to do dirty, backbreaking work with toxic chemicals for pennies. The people at the top were manipulated and controlled into working long hours to give most of their money to these corporations in exchange for the things made from these toxic chemicals.

What's the worst part of this story? It's a nonfiction book, and it's about you and me. The Story of Stuff, by Annie Leonard, tells the tale of all the mundane items we're surrounded with, how they're made from carcinogenic chemicals and resources extracted at great price by poor people. She shows how we're manipulated into buying more and more, through planned obsolescence and advertising, and how our so-called durable goods have been so complex that no one can fix them when they break. She shows how most of the Stuff we own is generally thrown out fairly quickly, how we've poisoned the earth and trampled on people in third-world countries to obtain all this crap that never really goes "away" once we kick it to the curb.

Leonard does a good job of portraying how we're all sort off caught in a web. She doesn't aim to make an individual feel bad, because there's no real way to be "good" in this sort of system. No way to avoid consuming the carcinogenic chemicals that are in virtually everything we buy. No way to truly reduce your environmental impact to zero.

And yet, throughout the book, she continually offers alternatives and shows signs of hope. A flooring giant has begun taking responsibility for its products through its entire life, offering a sort of "tile" model for its carpets, since anyone who's recarpeting is really just looking to address the worn portion where the traffic pattern was, and the parts that were under furniture usually still look decent. They also experiment with renting carpets to offices the way they rent copiers: the company will service it and replace it when it's worn. A professor has developed the GoodGuide to help people consume better.

Other people are simply realizing that buying all that crap is stupid and choosing to define themselves more as parents, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, Kiwanis members, hikers, literacy volunteers, Catholics, etc. than as Gap shoppers, iPhone users, Balenciaga devotees, etc. It's a growing trend, coinciding neatly with the recession and people's reduced ability to buy crap. Also, the people in Third World countries that always get dumped on are beginning to fight back. Leonard calls Bhopal the "resistance capital of the world" as its residents continue to agitate to force Union Carbide to clean up its mess. Leonard writes of working with communities in Haiti to force the city of Philadelphia to take back its incinerated garbage ash from its beach (incinerated garbage ash is loaded with toxic heavy metals and carcinogens).

This is a very difficult book to read, not mentally, but emotionally. And heaven help you if you have to buy shampoo or anything in the middle of it. I had to, at the end of a very long workday, with no time to research how bad the product I planned to buy was. I wound up just getting what I always getting, washing my hair with it next to my toxic PVC shower curtain, drying it with a dryer probably made by Third World people forced off their land into factories, then laying my head down on my toxin-laden pillow, pulling the sheets dyed with carcinogenic chemicals over my head, and curling up next to my toxin-laden mate with my toxin-laden cat.

That's how you'll start to look at everything. When I went into work the next day, it was hard not to warn my co-workers against getting their cans of pop from the vending machines. (Aluminum cans, along with PVC, are the things Leonard tagged as "stupid stuff" that are so costly and dangerous and pointless, they should just be eliminated. I wanted to scream, "Don't you know how they made those!" but of course, they probably don't).

But it's definitely an important book. It's one everyone should read, because I don't see how you could read it and not want to help. Leonard gives lots and lots of advice as to how. It will scare you, but not nearly as scary as the alternatives.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

She's Not There

It takes a talented writer to bring out the humor in a serious topic, even more so when it's something that happened to the writer him (or her) self. I think society has made a lot of progress towards understanding and accepting homosexuality. But transgender is a whole other thing. It strains the tolerance of otherwise accepting people, who just don't get it. Their issues get lumped in with gay and lesbian issues, but it's a whole different thing.

Jennifer Finney Boylan's She's Not There is something I encourage everyone to pick up, then. Not just because it'll help towards understanding, but because it's a good and funny and heartbreaking read as well.

Boylan's best friend is a favorite writer of mine, Richard Russo. They taught together at Colby College and remained friends all their adult lives, even as the guy Russo knew as Jim got to the point where he could no longer deny what was inside of him and began going through the process of becoming a woman. Despite the presence of a crossdressing villain named Finney in Russo's novel about academic life, Straight Man, I wondered if Boylan was more the model for Hank, the protagonist pain-in-the-ass prankster. One of my favorite moments in She's Not There was a reproduced email correspondence between the two when Boylan was in transition. Russo poured his heart out about his difficulties in trying to readjust to the fact that his best drinking buddy was now female and closed it with something like "Then again, my biggest problem has always been myself." Boylan shot back with a one-line reply: "Funny, my biggest problem has also always been yourself."

One great thing about Boylan's two memoirs that I've read so far is that they read like novels: great characters, a plot that really moves, lots of detail. I like how, in this one, Boylan takes advantage of her unique perspective. Anyone who's ever wondered whether women get discriminated against in buying cars, who has an easier time shopping for clothing, if men and women actually think differently, etc. can actually find some answers in this book from someone who's in a position to tell you. It's a wonderful book, I highly reccomend it.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Adults only? An interesting debate

There's an interesting debate about library use and rules going on at Free Range Kids right now. You can read the post that sparked it here, but basically, the author of the post (who is also an author of children's books) and her husband were shooed out of the children's section of their local library because they didn't have a child with them. The rationale they were given was that "we can't have people hanging around and looking at the kids."

Based on that, I knew what I thought. I think society has gotten incredibly hysterical about "stranger danger" and has made all sorts of normal behaviors suspect, from sitting on a plane next to a child to giving out Halloween candy, to just smiling at the sight of someone else's kids having fun in public. This seems to be another sad and pathetic example of that, especially since the library was deserted when the writer and her husband were shooed away. There weren't even any kids for them to ogle.

But then I read some of the comments, especially those from public librarians. They stated that the goal was to provide a separate space for the kids, away from both the creepy people that genuinely do like to hang out at libraries and the overbearing yuppies who treat it as their personal office. They want it to just be a sort of "adult-free zone" where the kids can get into books without any disapproving stares, and from a practical standpoint, without having to fight for space with people who have the entire rest of the library.

I can see both sides of the issue, I guess. I always think it's bad to keep anyone away from any kind of book. But I also confess that I've been irritated many, many times by the screams of a bored child whose mom, in her infinite wisdom, dragged her into the adult section while she looked at adult books when the children's room was RIGHT. FUCKING. THERE. and full of things Young Screamer would have found more to her liking than the newest Lauren Weisenberg. Maybe if that mom had felt better about leaving her kid in there, the rest of us wouldn't have been treated to her Symphony of Boredom.

And while Lenore's blog focuses on overprotective parents, there are the other kind, too. The kind that see any supervised, kid-friendly environment and think: FREE BABYSITTING. The kind that will leave their three-year-old in the Kid Zone at Barnes and Noble while they go get their hair done. Those parents love libraries, too, and you know that if "something happened," they'd suddenly take a huge interest in their parenting duties and would sue. Maybe the policy was to address that issue, too.

I think it has to be applied judiciously, though. There are all sorts of legitimate reasons to want to use that space. In my city library, I see lots of new immigrants there who are trying to learn English. When you're switching entire alphabets, "Make Way for Ducklings" is probably a more appropriate place to start than the newspaper. Teachers use it to get books out for their classes. Museum educators use it to get books out for programs. Parents may want to use it when their kids are elsewhere. Students taking courses in children's lit, teens who have to babysit, there are a million reasons why. Many commentators pointed out that it's often simply the most attractive place in the library. Would you rather read your book in a beanbag chair by the 10-foot tall windows that overlook the park, or in a dimly-lit 1970s fake-wood cubicle?

I guess, sadly, a policy is needed to make sure adults are considerate, though. I think the librarian in the original example went a little overboard, kicking out obviously harmless people when the library was empty. But you see so much selfish and bizarre behavior in libraries that, sadly, there needs to be some way to curb it. No, you can't keep kids safe forever, and yes, the people who flock to libraries that need social services have the right to be there too. But you don't want to chase out the library's core audience just because our society fails so miserably at mental health care.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Currently Reading

Felt like blogging, didn't really know what to say, so turned to BTT. And they had a ridiculously easy one up:

What are you reading right now? What made you choose it? Are you enjoying it? Would you recommend it? (And, by all means, discuss everything, if you’re reading more than one thing!)

(I’ve asked this one before, but, well, it’s not like the answers stay the same, and darn it, it’s an interesting question!)

So right now I'm reading Private Life by Jane Smiley. I chose it because of an ad in The New Yorker. For a long time, I've had an irrational prejudice against this author because I really hate her last name. I know it's stupid, but I find it annoying. I did actually try one of her other books once, called Moo. And she did that thing I hate, when she makes an animal a symbol of something negative, like loss, or the toll that neglect and someone's whims takes on something. It always makes me miss the point.

So, to me, Moo is about a pig who's stashed in an unused building at a college and meticulously cared for by a student who bonds with the pig because he grew up on a farm and kinda misses it, and then after being stashed in the dark for months, they tear down the building because no one knows the pig was in there, and the pig (who's been depressed for a while) gets so excited to see the sunlight and smell the fresh air again that he goes running across campus, except he's big and fat now and can't really run and dies.

So anyway. Private Life. So far, I'd give it a meh-not-bad. It's another family saga, and I'm beginning to think maybe I checked out too many of those. It's about three daughters, especially the youngest, who were born in the late 1800s, and their marriages. Two of them stick close to home and make financially advantageous, conventional matches. But who cares about THEM. This book is about Margaret, consigned to old-maidhood until a naval astronomer (the joke is that they're never sure whether to address him as Dr., Captain, or just Mr.) marries her and takes her to California. All this is a rather slow burn, and I'm substantially into the book at this point. Hard to think of what to say about this one.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Salt and Sand

The House on Salt Hay Road appealed to me as a family saga, but it turns out it's just as much of a time/place saga. When you read this book, you'll smell sea salt, you'll feel the mosit wind lashing your face, you'll hear the cry of birds and you may just be the tiniest bit irrationally cautious of where you read the book, lest you get sand in your bed or your car.

This is a first novel by Carin Clevidence. It's set in the late 1930s on coastal, rural Long Island. It's a family saga, like I said, about a blended family. Nancy (age 20) and Clayton (age 12ish) are brother and sister. Their parents are both dead, and they've been living for several years with the grandfather, whom everyone calls Scudder, their aunt Mavis who was abandoned by her drunken husband and now works as a domestic at a lodge, and their uncle Roy, whose first girlfriend died when he was about Nancy's age and heralded his permanent retirement from all that, and from many other things.

It's their story over a few years. Nancy feels trapped. Clayton loves it, being a real nature type who loves fishing, crabbing, clamming, drawing dead animals, hunting birds, feeding live birds (Mavis' employer has a ton of them) and all variety of outdoor pursuits. Scudder inevitably ages and declines. Roy gets forced out of his comfort zone for one. Mavis confronts all the unpleasantness in her marriage that she's worked hard to ignore for years.

Nature plays a major role in their story. The book opens with an explosion at a fireworks factory and essentially closes with the biggest hurricane the region had ever seen, although there is denouement. I give this one a strong reccomendation. While it wasn't one of those that impelled me to read late into the night or one that I was thinking about when I wasn't reading it, it was a beautiful, realistic novel that felt like life and has one of the stronger senses of place I've ever seen in a book.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Today's catch at the library

It was a good day there. I found parking right away, I got a large quantity of books, and as it turned out, didn't owe them any money. I did have a secret weapon, though: the spring fiction issue of the New Yorker. It is to readers what the September issue of Vogue is to fashionistas. It tells you what's going on in the book world and why. It's as valuable for its ads as it is for its editorial content. It has the added advantage over Vogue, though, of being in reach of anyone with a library card, whereas the average Vogue reader will probably have to wait for the knockoffs to come to their local mall, or seek out a vindictive ex-husband of a wealthy fashionable woman who's putting all her purses on eBay for $50 each.

I noticed a couple of interesting things at the library today:

1. They're putting in a handicapped entrance near where I usually park. OK, I guess it's not that interesting, but it's disrupted things a bit.

2. You can make anything sound trendy and modern by sticking an "i" in front of it. Like iPoe, who is the subject of the local Big Read. Calling him ePoe would have made more sense, but I'm not in marketing.

3. If you eat right and try to exercise on an increasingly regular basis, "as many books as you can carry" becomes less of a solid benchmark for what your personal limit should be. Today, I could carry ten.

So, what'd I get? I'm so glad you asked.

The House on Salt Hay Road by Carin Clevidence. Just because it sounds cool.

Lockport Boy: a memoir of a magical time and place by Frank Bredell. I like to read books about the area, and this just sounds like such a joyful one. It was on their staff picks table, proving again that their stff has great taste.

She's Not There: a life in two genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan. I read her other book and thought it was terrific. This has been on my mental list for a while. Since I actually came with a paper list this time, I remembered to look for it.

Private Life by Jane Smiley. This was in the New Yorker issue that I mentioned. It sounded very good. I only read one of her other books, and it had an animal subplot that was so compelling and upsetting that I completely missed the point of the rest of the book.

The Family Beach House by Holly Chamberlin. A sort of quandary, because it's a family saga, which I tagged as suitable for fall, but about a beach house, which makes it more summery. I figured this in-between period would be perfect.

Midnight on the line: the secret life of the US border by Tim Gaynor. I passed it looking for something else and I thought it seemed like a valuable thing for a Northerner to read. We hear so much about border issues up here, but they don't really affect our lives to the point where we might have an informed opinion. I want a better understanding of why this is such a big issue, and if it's a real issue or just a 'wedge' issue like the so-called Ground Zero mosque or gay marriage.

Glass, paper, beans: a revelation on the nature of... by Leah Hager Cohen. I also found this on the way to something else. I guess it tracks the sources of these three things or something. Looking at my list, I would dub this one Most LIkely to Be Returned Unread, especially since it's so similar in subject matter to what I was really looking for, which is...

The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. Consider me her Colbert Bump: this is where I heard about her book, but it's a topic that's sort of interested me for a while: how the poorest Americans have tons of shit, where it comes from, and what happens to it when we're done with it.

The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute. I guess this was the It Book one year in the 80s. My parents had it, and as a little kid, the title confused the absolute hell out of me, especially since on closer examination, the book was not set in Egypt nor did it have anything to do with beans. I think it's about white trash, actually. I also think I've tried it before and not gotten far, but I'm interested in trying again.

Rest area: stories by Clay McLeod Chapman. This one had me at the description of the story in which preteen boys pretend that the lifeguard at the pool is a witch and they have to safely get to the bottom of the slide to defeat her. It's been a while since I read a good short story collection. I hope this qualifies.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Characters welcome?

Despite my belief that long books are better in the winter, I dove headfirst into David Copperfield three weeks ago. I don't know why. I bought it at Barnes and Noble a few months ago, and suddenly, there was nothing I wanted to read more. I finished it over the weekend.

I liked it, overall. But I know this is one book that frequently has the "boring" charge brought against it, and I can sort of understand why. Most of the stuff that happens develops rather slowly, and there is quite a bit in there that's not relevant to the main plot, which in itself is hard to define, since it's just a coming-of-age story and you could argue that everything that happens to you while you're growing up is relevant in a coming-of-age story.

And it's all there in David Copperfield. We get treated to accounts of what he ate in the inn on his way back to boarding school, what the interior was like of every door he darkened, and lengthy scenes with random characters. I think Charles Dickens liked making interesting characters so much that he just couldn't restrain himself.

And all of the random characters are pretty interesting. His beautician-dwarf made me think of the beautician-dwarf in the Tales of The City book where Michael goes to London. The cheerful funeral outfitters were interesting too. My co-worker was coincidentally re-reading it at the same time and pointed out that there was a great deal of foreshadowing in the book, and she's definitely right. Steerforth is described in too glowing terms not to have a dark side, and Uriah Heep is just shady as hell. But really, the cahracters make this one. And I love character-driven books.

Even though I liked Great Expectations better (it was much funnier), I enjoyed David Copperfield so much that I picked up Our Mutual Friend and Ye Old Curiousity Shoppe this weekend at B&N.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

It happened to me

So my whole adult life, basically, I've heard about people having computer problems. Viruses. The screens on their laptops failing. Hard drives crashing. Fried memory. But when it came to my own computer, I had this bizarre, magical yet persistent belief that I. Was. Bulletproof. I've had my own machine since 2002 and been problem-free the entire time.

Until the past few weeks. There were signs. I got the infamous "Blue screen of Death" a few times. My SO convinced me that the problem had to do with the fact that my virus protection expired two years ago, so I bought new virus scanning software. I ran several scans, it found a few things, and I figured that would be the end of it. Then. THEN. One day, I got the BSOD three times in a row. It happened so fast that I didn't even see the second time, it was still rebooting from the first time and I was turned around in my chair, talking to SO.

He messed around with it for a little while, imparted to me the surprising fact that it was not only possible to clean a computer but imperative to do so, and...he didn't fix it. Every time we tried something, it got progressively worse. We tried implementing some of the suggestions of our WoW friends, most of whom work with computers, but didn't get very far. It's fried. Windows now won't load at all. I've got to take it somewhere to get it fixed, but until then, it's just sitting on my kitchen table like a big, expensive paperweight.

So if there are no blog posts for a while, that's why.

Monday, August 30, 2010

On throwing in the towel

One of these days, I'll actually do one on Thursday again, but here's this week's BTT question:

Giving Up August 26, 2010

If you’re not enjoying a book, will you stop mid-way? Or do you push through to the end? What makes you decide to stop?

For many years after one of my graduate school professors died, I stopped wasting time on bad books, or thought I did. His goal was to read every book, and judging by the state of his office and the fact that it took his widow the rest of the academic year to go through and determine the disposition of all of his books, he came as close as anyone.

I've said often on here that it was the suddenness of his death that was the most shocking. He was killed when a young heroin addict drifted into his lane and hit him head-on. The heroin addict was also killed. When we found out, we were all at a barbeque to welcome the new students, wondering why none of our professors had shown up yet. Then, someone came to tell us. I kept asking people how he could possibly be dead when I'd just seen him yesterday, even knowing how stupid that sounded. And I kept thinking how he'd wanted to read every book, and wondered how much time he wasted on bad ones, and vowed to myself not to do that.

Except. Sometimes it's easier said than done. When it's a random book from the library and it proves to be bad, I have no problem putting it away. I have no particular relationship with it at that point. It looked interesting, but it wasn't, oh well. It's when I've been looking forward to the book that it's harder to pull the plug. For example, The Swan Thieves. I could tell early on that it wasn't good. But yet, I turned the last page, still surprised that it never gotten any better.

I also made a very valiant attempt with Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart because it's considered a modern classic and an important piece of colonial literature. And to say I don't like a book like that makes me sound like a whiny high school sophomore who thinks that Shakespeare is a shitty writer. But I couldn't do it. I tried repeatedly, much harder than I would have tried if it was just a random book and not something I'd wanted to read ever since I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

So, to sum up, it depends on whether or not I think the book has real potential or is at least something I should read before I plug-pull.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

"This place, and everyone in it, is disposable:" On modern Miracle-Mile culture

Take a trip with me in your mind down the Miracle Mile you frequent the most. While you're stopped at the light, look to your left. What's there? OK, now what was there last year? Three years ago? Five, ten, twenty? How many times do you suppose it's changed over since you started using this particular Miracle Mile? Why, and what happened to the people that worked there?

These questions are raised by Stewart Nan's brief and haunting Last Night at the Lobster. Told from the third-person viewpoint of Manny, the general manager, it takes us through the final day of a Red Lobster in Connecticut.

Manny has no idea why it happened. They were supposed to close for remodeling, and then corporate just pulled the plug. He is among the lucky ones, he'll go to the Olive Garden a couple of towns over, along with five of his best employees. Everyone else is looking for work.

The staff is a cross-section of "everyone else:" the hostess, who is putting herself through college with this job. The cook, an ex-military guy. The young, unsettled line workers with a bent for trouble who will probably through three or four similar jobs in the next year. The system-breaker, waitress Roz, who's the only one vested in the company's retirement plan. Nicolette, another waitress, who doesn't take any crap from anyone and once chased patrons across the lot to get her pen back. Jackie, who used to date Manny and now dates some dangerous cricket player.

Manny has been fair to them, a good guy, and that's why they all bother showing up. Manny himself is meticulous and utterly competent, in addition to being such a fair good guy, and one might wonder why he doesn't have a better job, though it's hard to see what else, exactly, he might be suited for.

Nan puts the soul in the machine with this book. Manny is such a good general manager, doing everything exactly by the book until it's lights out, that it's heartbreaking to see how little corporate loves him back. In fact, they don't care about anyone: not what will become of the struggling mall in which the Lobster's located, nor what their regular patrons will do for their lunches and dinners.

Their closing, you see, was not publicly announced. After their final lunch and dinner, Manny will get to return the next day, alone, and stand outside in the snow with coupons for the Olive Garden, as if the closing is his fault. The book is a thought-provoking exploration of the human cost of the Miracle Mile way of life that we are all part of, like it or not.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Jasper Fforde: A PSA

If you already know the Jasper Fforde books, this blog post is not for you. Rather, it's to raise awareness among the millions that are scratching their heads and saying "Fforde? Is that supposed to be Swedish or something? Nah, screw it, let's see what's on Lamebook."

I've reccomended these books to virtually everyone I've run across since the first time I read them. It's not uncommon to find a book that's kinda different, has some unusual element to it, or finds a way to reverse an expectation we didn't even know we had. The two white girls obsessed with flamenco in Sarah Bird's The Flamenco School. The loveable, aimless, semi-alcoholic dad in Tawni O'Dell's Fragile Beasts. The presence of Turner's Syndrome (which I'd never heard of before) in Jennifer Haigh's The Condition.

Jasper Fforde's books are something else altogether. You'll find them miscategorized as mysteries, but they're really about the journey, not the destination.

Thursday Next lives an a sort of alternate reality, similar to our own, but with some key differences. Wales is a Socialist Republic, life is dominated by evil corporation Wal-Ma.....I mean, Goliath, the Crimean War dragged on for decades and claimed thousands of casualties, and literature looms large in everyone's lives. There are WillSpeak machines on streetcorners: put a quarter in, and you get a soliloqy. People attend Rocky Horror-style performances of Richard III ("WHEN is the winter of our discontent?"). And crimes relating to fiction are serious matters.

That's what Thursday starts out doing. Then, she is recruited by Jurisfiction to police matters internal to books. For instance, keeping the Mispeling Vyrus under control (it disfigured Uriah Hope from David Copperfield, who became "cadaverous" instead of "courageous," etc.). She also runs Rage Counseling Sessions in Wuthering Heights and in an inspired sequence, gives a happy ending to a child's tale about a blind dog.

The books are nothing short of brilliant. They're funny, clever and totally original. You can read one in an afternoon. Knowledge of literature is somewhat helpful, but not necessary. It actually inspired me to read several of the classics. After meeting Miss Havisham as Thursday's mentor (who liked to sneak off in her moldy wedding dress to attempt to break the land speed record before Mr. Toad could), I read Great Expectations and found it to be surprisingly funny, much more enjoyable to get through than I ever would have imagined, and actually not terribly different from today's better-written novels.

But if you're not in the mood for a Dickens and are looking for something a bit different, try a Jasper Fforde book. The Thursday Next books are: The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, and Thursday Next: First Among Sequels. Enjoy!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Reading Meme, a long BTT

So, Big Exciting Issue finally drew to a close. I posted my story to the web at a quarter to midnight Tuesday, got out of work 2 hours early on Thursday, been working on my wrap-up story ever since. And reading in-between! Thought I'd do a BTT and it's a loooong one, so brew a pot of coffee, and happy reading. I formatted it a little differently this week because of the nature of it, but y'all are smart enough to know that I didn't make up the below questions and my answers to them are the original part. So, enjoy, and feel free to play along on your own blog.

1. Favorite childhood book?

The Changeling by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Good ol' Zilpha, haven't thought of her in ages. I think I liked it because my best friend and I used to play like those girls all the time.

2. What are you reading right now?

Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde. Re-reading, actually.

3. What books do you have on request at the library?
I generally don't do that.

4. Bad book habit?
Checking out books like a drunken sailor, getting them home and being like "what the hell?", then failing to return them on time.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?
Bah. Well. There's the two Thursday Next books, the above-mentioned and The Well of Lost Plots. Fragile Beasts was on that charge-out, but has gone back. The rest? Not sure. See above.

6. Do you have an e-reader?
hell no
7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
One at a time

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?

Yes. I don't do as much re-reading as I used to, and I analyze the books more as I'm reading them. It didn't take me long to start thinking about how I'd write about it as I read.

9. Least favorite book you read this year (so far?)
That would be The Swan Thieves.

10. Favorite book you’ve read this year?

Tough question. Would be either The Art of Racing in the Rain (although I cried buckets) or The Condition by Jennifer Haigh.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

Odd question, if I read outside it often, it wouldn't be a comfort zone, would it?

12. What is your reading comfort zone?

OK, I know the point of these questions is to think about them a bit, but after giving this one a bit of thought, I'm still not sure. I avoid horror and mystery but it's not really because they make me uncomfortable.

13. Can you read on the bus?

Yes, but I haven't been on a bus in ages. Public transport is really lacking around here, and I'm supposed to have my car at work anyway.

14. Favorite place to read?

My front porch! I even bought a special pair of pajama pants that look like regular pants so I can go out there first thing in the morning on weekends. I'm wearing them now, in fact.

15. What is your policy on book lending?

Neither a borrower nor a lender be. I bet everyone who did this meme answered it like that.

16. Do you ever dog-ear books?

I try not to.

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?

18. Not even with text books?
OK, you got me.

19. What is your favorite language to read in?

English, it's the only one I understand!

20. What makes you love a book?

Usually, it's strong characters. I can forgive an implausible or lackluster plot. I can't forgive cardboard characters who behave in inconsistent ways to move the story forward.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?

Usually, its originality. If I've never read anything like it, I'll reccomend it to others.

22. Favorite genre?

Just simple old boring realistic fiction.

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)

I wish I could get more into fantasy. I like it in theory, and I could participate in the coversations about it that happen in my World of Warcraft guild, since all my fellow guildies love reading fantasy. I tried recently and couldn't get into it. Same cardboard character issue.

24. Favorite biography?

The Dirt by Motley Crue. I should probably be a little more ashamed to admit that, but it was awesome.

25. Have you ever read a self-help book?

Yeah. It didn't help. It was supposed to help me make up my mind about having a kid. It gave me some food for thought, though.

26. Favorite cookbook?


27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?
(answer here)

28. Favorite reading snack?

Cheese and crackers, also the answer to "What's your favorite snack in general" and not infrequently, "what did you have for lunch."

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.

I really can't think of one.

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?

I wouldn't know, I don't often read reviews.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?

The only time I minded was when I had to say some bad things about a book I'd been sent to review. It seemed more personal. I liked that book overall, but it wasn't perfect and I said so.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose?

Chinese. That would be impressive as hell.

33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?

Definitely Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory. I read it during my semester abroad for one of my courses. My advisor tried to talk me out of registering for Arthurian Legend, saying I'd have to read an 800-page book. I told him that having guidance through that particular 800-page book was what attracted me to the course in the first place. I loved it.

34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?

I can't really think of one. Does the manual for my SL-R camera count?

35. Favorite Poet?

Not much on poetry. I guess I don't really have one.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?

Usually five to seven. I stop when I can't carry anymore, so it depends somewhat on their size.

37. How often have you returned book to the library unread?

Almost every time, so about once a month.

38. Favorite fictional character?

I'm not sure. I usually say Eilonwy from the Prydain books when asked.

39. Favorite fictional villain?

I really don't know. Mordred from The Once and Future King was a great villian. Isn't it odd that I turned to fantasy for the answers to both of those questions, even though I admittedly rarely read it?

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?

To me, a stop at the library is as essential a part of trip planning as doing laundry and packing. I like to bring a lot of books and try to get an assortment of new books and old favorites, in case the new ones all suck. The old favorites I select depend on my mood. Sometimes, I like to go back to a one I've only read once or twice but loved. Other times, I go for ones that I've read so often, I barely even need the book anymore.

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.

Not sure, but I bet it was when the new World of Warcraft expansion was released!

42. Name a book that you could/would not finish.

The most obvious answer, I've already used in an example about the one that made me angry (I skipped around). There were a few recently that I realized I was simply not in the mood for, like Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel, or the David Guterson about the dying man that was going to kill himself. Those aren't forever, though, I do intend to try again.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?

Just life. Being tired, working too much, having a lot going on.

44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel?

I gave this one a lot of thought, and I'd have to say the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I had a hard time getting into the books, but the movies were marvelous.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation?

The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander was turned into the most dreadful Disney movie ever produced. It could have been terrific. They had great source material, very deep, tackling the true nature of heroism. They chose to water it down, to make the Eilonwy character a simpering suck-ass, Gurgi a colorless sidekick, and Taran really brave and really smart.

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?

When my mom retired, she got some sort of cash bonus. She used part of it to give us each $50 to blow at Barnes and Noble. It was so much fun. I can't remember what I got, but I remeber the evening well.

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?


48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?

It could be anything. I do it a lot. Boring, laggy plot, terrible characters, simply due back at the library, anything at all.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized?

I like to, but I rarely do.

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?

I always keep them.

51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?

The Twilight saga. I am afraid I will like them.

52. Name a book that made you angry.

Well, I actually threw Doesn't She Look Natural across the room. It was meant to be "Christian fiction." I was offended by the presence of a character who was attracted to men, but "because he loved the Lord," lived a life pretty much free of love from anyone except his mother. The main character, who had inherited a funeral home and who also loves the Lord (we knew because we were told, repeatedly) had wanted him out of her house and away from her sons until she learned that about them. Narrow-minded biddy.

53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?

I was surprised at how good Snow Falling on Cedars was. I had it on my shelf for ages without even knowing why or where it came from. I finally read it last winter and was fairly blown away.

54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?

I thought I'd like Edgar Sawtelle more. It was fairly crap, though.

55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading?

James Herriott's books will make anyone feel good. I just love them.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Evolving as a reader...or not: the return of BTT

I was in the mood to do one. I'm going to try to blog more regularly, especially since the conclusion of Big Exciting Issue is on the horizon at my newspaper. Big Exciting Issue has been with me literally since I started the job. I've written probably 20 stories on it, at least, which is a lot for a weekly newspaper. But the people in the community I cover vote on Big Exciting Issue in four days, and after it's all over with, I anticipate having both more time and energy, and yes, possibly a little hole in my life to fill.

So without further ado, I give you this week's BTT question:

Evolution August 12, 2010

Have your reading choices changed over the years? Or pretty much stayed the same? (And yes, from childhood to adulthood we usually read different things, but some people stick to basically the same kind of book their entire lives, so…)

I never really thought about it too much until now, but it's an interesting one. When I was little, I liked fantasy a lot, especially the Narnia books and Lloyd Alexander. My best friend and I spent hours searching for the gateway to Narnia (we ruled out everywhere near both of our houses, fyi). As an adult, I read the Harry Potter books and the His Dark Materials trilogy, but I'm not a fantasy buff. My few forays into adult fantasy were rather disappointing.

I hated sci-fi then. I still do.

I went through a brief Agatha Christie stint (article in the New Yorker about her this week, WHUT WHUT) but never really got into mysteries. I'm still not.

I had an 'incident' with a Stephen King novel when I was a teenager. I still avoid the horror genre.

So all that pretty well narrows it down to realistic fiction. But I definitely find the kinds of books I've been drawn to changed as I got older. I'm ashamed to admit that I've never been able to get into fiction set in a radically different culture than my own. (I still think Mr. Library Diva's inability to get into a book with a female protagonist is worse, but still). I like character-driven fiction better than plot-driven. But I don't know if that's always been true or if "Stranger Than Fiction" just made me think about it a little more and realize my preference.

So I guess I'd say in general that I've always basically enjoyed reading about people that were similar to me, that I could relate to, with the occasional outlandish twist thrown in. I love the Jasper Fforde books, and am actually re-reading them now. And I liked some of Sarah Bird's novels for her ability to throw in something unusual to a normal life, like a flamenco school or a burgeoning career as a romance novelist. Just like I enjoyed Janet Evanovich's books about a girl with a quirky family, complicated love life, and oh yeah, that whole bounty hunter thing as a career.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fragile, and slightly disappointing, Beasts

It's always a disappointment when a long-awaited book turns out to be not what you're hoping. It's worse when it happens right towards the end of the book. It's worst of all, though, when it's by a new writer you promote often and would quit your job to do PR for.

Such was the case with Fragile Beasts, the new Tawni O'Dell. Yeah, you heard me right, the new. Tawni. O'Dell. I saw it in the new books section and it was all I could do not to scream out "Fuckyeah!" in the middle of the library (and since it was the central branch, I wouldn't have to worry about getting thrown out).

Fragile Beasts is vaguely linked in with all the rest of them, taking place in the same fictionalized depressed Pennsylvania coal town area. It's the tale of three people: Kyle, Klint and Candace. Kyle and Klint are teenaged boys whose father just died in a drunk-driving accident. Their mother had ran out several years before and is now suddenly back to lay claim on them and spirit them away to Arizona, where she's living now with their little sister, who she took with her, and the guy she ran off with.

This is a disaster. Not just because the mother is a total trainwreck, but because Klint is a hotshot baseball player, who's been heavily scouted even as a junior, and needs to stay with his team for his future. Enter Candace.

The boys have been fortunate enough to make friends with Shelby, who's the niece of rich, reclusive Candace. Now 77, Candace has never married or had children, has a ton of money, and remains on her enormous estate just outside of town with her staff and her bull. Shelby convinces Candace to take the boys in.

You can probably guess at a fair amount of the rest. There are a few surprises, though. The father who died in the drunk-driving accident emerges as a likeable, caring man, just a man without very high aspirations or direction in life. Candace is billed as Having A Secret, but it's not a real secret. It's just one of those things in families that isn't discussed, much like how I knew that my great-uncle was a PTSD victim who spent most of his life institutionalized, but knew none of the details (and now that everyone's dead, never will).

Candace coughs up Her Secret early on (the book alternates between her perspective and Kyle's) and as it turns out, the evidence of it was pretty much everywhere and could have been uncovered through a Google search. By the way, am I the only one who's thrown off when a book will casually mention a specific website or video game? It's like books don't mix with those things, to me.

Anyway, so you may be wondering, where's the disappointment? Well, readers, it is in the melodramatic final 50 pages or so, which contain a suicide attempt, a real death, and the revelation of An Actual Shocking Secret that was totally unneccessary and cheapened the rest of the book, in my opinion. It didn't seem to fit, before or after. It's like O'Dell just threw it in because she needed something to drive the book to its conclusion.

I wouldn't tell people not to bother with this one altogether. But if you've never read one by Tawni O'Dell, start with Sister Mine. Don't start here.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Library Diva needs your help

The dog days of summer seem to have hit my reading list. I'm stuck in a rut with things to read. Tried some non-fiction, turns out I'm not in the mood (I'm ashamed to admit it was Undaunted Courage, too, which has always gotten very high marks for being an abosrbing, exciting read). Tried some fantasy, a book of short stories about dragons, got halfway through and my desire to read about dragons seems to be quenched. At the library, generally seem to find myself re-verifying that I have, in fact, read everything by Jennifer Haigh, Tawni O'Dell, Richard Russo, et al and that the library doesn't carry more Geraldine Brooks or Mark Jude Poirer -- still -- and going home with a bunch of random books that looked kind of appealing but upon closer examination, I don't actually want to read after all.

Someone, please, help me break this cycle. I want to hear about something you guys have read and loved, or something you think I might enjoy. I hate not having a book to read. It tends to lead to lots of mindless puttering around the house and marathon sessions of either WoW or some mindless TV show like Law and Order SVU or Keeping Up with the Kardashians (OMG, Scott is such a dick!). I'm looking for a good reccomendation. I may go to the library as soon as tomorrow to check them out, if I get any.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Some Short Takes

A good way to talk about a few books at once, that are not really worthy of their own entry, but are still things I read. Here are a couple that have been amusing me.

Water For Elephants, by Sara Gruen. I liked. I liked very much, but I have nothing terribly deep to say about it. I'm a sucker for a circus story, and if you are too, this is a good one. I liked that it wasn't overly romanticized. The circus in the story was a brutal place, where underperformers and troublemakers got "redlighted" off the moving circus train in the middle of the night, but where all manner of cruelty was tolerated from a high performer. I reccomend this one.

The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder, by Rebecca Wells. Also known as the woman who brought you the incredibly successful Ya-Ya franchise. Wells' books are sort of the same thing over and over again. If you like them, you'll like this one. It's the story of a spirited Southern girl who has lots of love and lots of tragedy in her life, and overcomes the latter through the former.

One thing I noticed about Wells' books -- they're always about the Queen Bee. You won't find any misunderstood, unpopular, brainy, geeky heroines at the center of her novels. They're all about the Prom Queen, and those in her orbit. In a way, it's a bit refreshing. But I disliked how little sympathy she had, in Ya-Yas in Bloom, for those on the outside.

But that has nothing to do with this book. It's overall a bit of harmless fun. Like I said, won't change the hearts and minds of haters, but those who can't get enough of this stuff will be well-satisfied with this one.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Hey, look, I'm at the forefront of a trend!

I saw this article on a friend's Facebook page this morning. I liked it a lot, especially since I've pretty much never been at the forefront of a trend in my life! Guess I'll have to work harder at updating this blog.

From an article on

I realize we're picking the bones from the Old Spice campaign at this point, but when I saw that the Brigham Young University parody of the Old Spice ads had gotten more than 1.2 million views (Old Spicy himself — that's what I'm calling him — did a video for libraries), it got me thinking.

Specifically, it got me thinking about the very enjoyable Librarians Do Gaga video that everyone sent my way after the debut of the NPR Does Gaga video.

And about the fact that a local news story skeptically questioning whether libraries are "necessary" set off a response from Vanity Fair, and a later counterpunch by Chicago's Public Library Commissioner won her support from such diverse, non-library-specific outlets as The A.V. Club and Metafilter, and from as far away as The Guardian.

Call it a hunch, but it seems to me that the thing is in the air that happens right before something — families with a million kids, cupcakes, wedding coordinators — suddenly becomes the thing everyone wants to do happy-fuzzy pop-culture stories about. Why?

">Are libraries the next big thing?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Family dramas, or a new author discovered

A while back, I was musing what sort of book I could read now that chick lit for 20-somethings has lost its charm, chick lit for 30-somethings doesn't seem to have any, you can't just wait for the rare gems like Life of Pi or The Historian, Southern-style fiction gets old, historical fiction is so hard to sort the good from the bad, I've read out most of my old favorite authors and major works of literature don't always suit. The answer may have come from Jennifer Haigh: family dramas.

Looking at a family over time is a good way to sort through lots of eras and lots of personalities. I found The Condition by her, remaindered at Barnes and Noble for $5, and it was wonderful. The Condition is about a family dealing with Turner's Syndrome, which forever traps women (always women) in the body of a child. They'll have normal intelligence, but physically, they'll never grow up. The middle child, Gwen, is diagnosed when she's thirteen. The diagnosis causes the parents to divorce, which shatters the family's closeness for decades.

At least, that's the family myth. Haigh starts from there and looks deeper. Weren't there signs of trouble between the parents all along? Didn't the father try, in his own scientific way, to be involved? And wouldn't other things have shattered the family's closeness too? Her older brother Billy's insistence on compartmentalizing his life, never letting his family close enough to know that he's gay, making sure he always calls them and never the other way around, lest his partner accidentally answer the phone? Or Scott, the youngest by quite a bit, always at the margins of his family and ultimately stuck in a life he despises? Gwen herself, forcing her own independence from the family for survival's sake but unsure what to do with it?

There's a lot of misery in the book, but a lot of funny moments, too. When Billy finally comes out, in a low-key way by merely bringing his partner to a family gathering and introducing him as such, his mother notes how handsome his partner is, musing "If more men looked like that, maybe there'd be more homosexuals in the world." It ultimately leads to a satisfying conclusion. You walk away feeling the characters will be OK after all.

Baker Towers is a bit more ambiguous at the end. It's the saga of a family of five, but mostly the women, in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania after World War II. It begins with the death of the family patriarch and follows what becomes of the coal mining family for the next few decades. All the men escape, but the women, by and large, cannot. Joyce, the brightest student Bakerton High had ever seen, wants an adventurous life of military service, but family duty and disillusionment bring her back to Bakerton. Dorothy shocked the family by moving to Washington DC and actually doing something with herself, but ultimately couldn't sustain her life on her own. The baby Lucy, however, ultimately chooses to return, in a turn of events that shocks everyone.

Mrs. Kimble was Haigh's much-lauded debut. To put it bluntly, it is the tale of a sociopathic asshole and the lives he ruins. It's a bit hard to take at times. By the time he meets his young third wife, we're cringing. We've seen it all before: how kind, how direct, how caring. How much he seems to have in common with her. How he understands. By then, we know that it's Ken Kimble's particular talent to hone in on subtle clues, to talk his way into his second wife's family business by faking a Jewish mother, for example, or to seem like a free spirit trapped in a conservative community to a young girl who feels the same. We also know that he'll bail when things get tight. We never see his own perspective, just all of his sins, major and minor, through the eyes of his three wives and his oldest son.

Jennifer Haigh was an awesome find. I'm sorry that I initially discovered her in the remainer pile, for now that means I'll have to wait for a new one for quite a while.