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.