Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My hero, f*cked over

So, I read a terrific biography of one of my personal heroes, Molly Ivins. I wish I could be cheesy and say she's the reason I'm in journalism, but that's truthfully more down to a weak economy, so I'll just say that anyone could do worse than attempt to be like her. I first heard of her when my mom got her first book, Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? for Christmas. I checked it out, of course, and her subsequent books were under the tree in my pile. My local paper started carrying her column, and that was awesome because I didn't have to wait.

She died shortly after I started this blog. I wrote a goodbye post to her here, but never really knew more of her life than she shared in her columns.

Molly Ivins: A rebel Life by Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith taught me a great deal, then. They interviewed friends, co-workers, family members, and people who knew her in a professional capacity to paint a surprising portrait of a contradictory woman. Her image was that of a frank-talking Texas liberal, but she also spoke fluent French and attended several Ivy League schools. Her father was a wealthy Texas oilman, president of a large oil concern. She struggled with alcoholism. She struggled with authority, getting fired from the New York Times for her use of the phrase "gang pluck" in a story about a chicken-killing contest.

She, famously, never married. I'd always believed that the love of her life was killed in Vietnam, based on a column she wrote. According to this book, though, the love of her life was killed in a motorcycle accident, while they were both in college. I wish the book had explained that column, though. Instead of a husband and children, she had a large family of friends that spent her last Thanksgiving with her, and she remained close to her siblings, even though her relationship with her father was always strained.

The biography is good, neither a love letter nor a posthumous savaging. There was one particular quote that came from her late suitor's sister that I thought was just inflammatory conjecture and should have been excluded ("I think they talked about a master race." Really? Were you there? Did anything come of it? No, huh? So why bring it up?).

But there was one aspect of it that pissed me off, that was glossed over near the end. When Molly Ivins became ill with breast cancer, she was working for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her wikipedia bio will tell you that she left there to become an independent journalist. According to the book, however, she did not leave voluntarily. She was let go, or her contract was not renewed, or however you want to put it. You see, no one has to cover the health insurance of an independent journalist who has cancer. It's a scary thought. If it happened to a New York Times best-selling author, who can't it happen to?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Eagerly anticipated meta-Thursday

So, Jasper Fforde has a new Thursday Next book out! It made my month to see this, especially since it was miraculously available at the library when I went!

One of our Thursdays is Missing is so meta that it will make your head spin. It's set mostly in the Bookworld, and the main character is the written Thursday Next. If you read First Among Sequels, you've met the two competing written Thursdays that got whittled down to one by the end of the book. Well, the book is about her. The characters are somewhat familiar, but different. Pickwick the dodo is played by a total diva who bullies everyone in the written Next household. Thursday's dad is also somewhat of a diva who is always blaming their low read rates on her performance. Acheron Hades, arch-villain of the series, is actually a really nice guy who often does not have a coffee with the written Thursday (the coffee shops are so expensive that no one actually drinks in them, they just go to be seen).

There are others, too. Mrs. Malaprop, trying to manage her unfortunate illness, serves as sort of a housekeeper. Early on, Thursday meets a robot about to be stoned and rescues it, procuring his services as a butler in the process. In order to enable the written Thursday to enjoy the occasional non-coffee and rescue robots, she has an understudy, a talented but panicky woman who likes to get 'hypenated' off her brain and hook up with goblins in her off-hours.

The plot of this one? Honestly, I'm not sure. As the title implies, the real-life Thursday Next has gone missing, and the written Thursday spends some time looking for her, to be sure, but there are all sorts of other complications and convolutions that were sort of tough to follow. If I'm to be completely honest, I didn't enjoy this one as much as the others. I sort of felt the humor wasn't there, and that's what always saved the others from becoming total confusion. But if someone had told me that last week, I would have picked this up anyway, so I won't discourage anyone else.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Cider House Rules!

OK, I admit, I'd always sort of read the title that way. After reading the book, I can say that, in fact, it does.

If you're looking to get lost in something, this sprawling tale by John Irving is a good choice. It's the tale of two men. Dr. Wilbur Larch is truly an unforgettable character. He was forged by his first sexual experience: with a prostitute his father bought him as a going-away-to-college gift, whose daughter came in at the end and sat in a chair by the bed, smoking a cigar. He contracted gonhorrea from the prostitute, then years later, he would treat both mother and daughter in a Boston ER. Both would die, the daughter from a back-alley abortion that Dr. Larch had refused to perform. After that, Dr. Larch began performing them. He also became the head of an orphanage in rural Maine. For decades, he provided a safe choice to women: they could come to him to have either an orphan or an abortion.

Homer Wells was a 'failed orphan'. He was adopted four times. None of them took, for various reasons. He remained at the orphanage as the heir apparent to Dr. Larch, and as the only son Larch would ever know.

The book chronicles Dr. Larch's entire life, and most of Homer Wells'. It's set in the first half of the twentieth century throughout rural Maine and has a huge cast of memorable characters. Melony, Homer Wells' first girlfriend, also a failed orphan and a large, rough woman who finds her place as an electrician. The two nurses, Dr. Larch's platonic wives, who worship him. Candy, the woman Homer leaves with and has a doomed, decades-long affair with. Fuzzy Stone, an orphan who succumbs to poor lungs but is reborn in Dr. Larch's mind. Many, many more, including the migrant apple-picker denizens of the Cider House, for whom the rules of the title are written. I enjoyed this one a lot, and plan to try more Irving in the future.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Another Ishiguro, with an unlikeable narrator

I'm not sure how I felt about When We Were Oprhans by Kazuo Ishiguro. Wait, yes I am, I just don't want to admit it to myself. I enjoyed the other two books I'd read by him so much that it sort of hurts to admit that I didn't think much of this one.

This book is a detective novel, in the sense that the main character is a detective. He grew up in Shanghai between the wars. First his father, then his mother were kidnapped, and he was sent to live in England with his aunt, where he grew up, became a detective, and ultimately returned to Shanghai to try to learn what happened to his parents.

Except, he's kind of a lame character. And not in any particular way. He's self-aggrandizing, believes himself to have always been a popular child, despite evidence to the contrary, and is a social climber, despite his insistent denials of those aspirations to the reader. He adopts an orphan himself, and seemingly loses interest in her almost immediately. There's a quasi-romantic subplot, but he doesn't seem to like her much, and disparages her as a climber (he ought to know).

The payoff should have been in the plot, but that also sort of fell flat. The truth about what happened to his parents is much, much less interesting than what his shadowy recollections might have assisted the reader in conjuring up. So I have to say this book was a disappointment, but not enough to put me off Ishiguro permanently. In fact, I liked the others that I read so much that I will probably read all of his books, even if I dislike them as well.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Life worth living

This week, I received some sad news. The sister of a high school friend had died very suddenly. I hadn't seen this girl in years, but I'd recently reconnected with her on Facebook. She posted a lot, so I felt I had a sense of what was going on with her. She was the only FB friend I had who would randomly post on people's walls, just to say hello. She was looking forward to getting a new job. To log on, a week ago today, and learn that she was no longer with us was a terrible shock.

I attended the wake, and for some reason, didn't feel like going right home. So I drove out to the library nearby, which was probably not the best of ideas. If you're like me and don't go with a 'shopping list', what you come away with is definitely influenced by your mood.

But one thing I did grab is Fannie Flagg's newest, I Still Dream About You. I like Fannie Flagg. Her stuff is not terribly deep, but you usually come away feeling good. And if she can write a cheerful book whose plot is driven by the main character's plan to kill herself, I guess that's no small feat.

Maggie Fortinberry is an ex-Miss Alabama whose life didn't go as planned. Her simple dream had been to marry, live in one of the older mansions in Birmingham and raise children. Instead, she wound up in a long-term affair with a married man who died suddenly, then returned to Birmingham and became a real-estate agent. She's pushing 60, doing real estate with less and less success, squeezed by a ruthless competitor agent and still missing her mentor in the business. She develops a plan that she thinks is foolproof, but things keep interrupting her.

In the process, she realizes, of course, that her life does have value. There are people that care about her, even if none of them are her husband or her child. It is worth living to see tomorrow, after all. The book isn't laugh-out-loud funny, but parts will make you smile. It's also an extremely quick read. But after this week, it was nice to read something that was just life-affirming.