“A La Cart”

October 31, 2008 at 4:20 pm | Posted in Fiction | 3 Comments

In honor of Halloween, I’d like to point you to a book with a lot of costumes in it.  Hillary Carlip uses her collection of found grocery lists to create a bevy of characters, and then dresses up like she imagines them to look.  As you turn the pages of A La Cart, you’ll have trouble believing that all 26 different characters are actually the same person.  She does different ages, genders, and even races.  The only thing she doesn’t really try to change is her height, though I guess there isn’t much you can do about that.

Accompanying the stunning makeup and costumes, Carlip offers a profile and a little story about each character.  There is also a picture of the shopping list that started it off.  You could have a field day with the lists alone, between the handwriting and the misspelling.

Booking Through Thursday: Conditioning

October 30, 2008 at 5:25 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 5 Comments

Here is my response to today’s Booking Through Thursday.

Are you a spine breaker?  Or a dog-earer?  Do you expect to keep your books in pristine condition even after you have read them?  Does watching other readers bend the cover all the way round make you flinch or squeal in pain?

I probably fall somewhere about 2/3 of the way to the pristine end of the spectrum.  Not only would I never dog-ear a book, but when I encounter dog-eared pages I unfold them.  I am so paranoid about breaking the spines of books that I’ve actually checked out an audio version of a book a friend lent me so I wouldn’t risk mangling her copy.  Watching other readers bend a cover back causes me to berate them – I just won’t have it, particularly when it’s my book.

This is what I don’t understand about book manglers.  It’s perfectly fine in my mind for people to do whatever they want to books they’ve bought.  If you want to write in ballpoint in the margins, dog-ear pages, leave the book face down on the edge of the bathtub, or do as my grandpa does and tear off the corners and then chew and swallow them, well, it’s your book.  But!  If that book belongs to someone else, or to the library (and, by extension, to me), then it had darn well better go back in the same condition in which you got it.  To me, though, it’s a question of wantonly ruining property, whether it’s a book or a sweater.

What’s important to me is the content of the book, not the physical vessel itself.  I certainly don’t see anything sacred about mass market paperbacks, and I see a point in the future when our cars may well run on Dan Brown-based biofuel.  Most of my reading material comes from the library, where the books are solidly bound and plastic-wrapped.  So I’m not as tender with them as I probably could be.  I carry books in my bag, use them to smash spiders, read them at the table and on the treadmill and even, once, on my bicycle (Absalom, Absalom!), which is easier than you’d think, but it started to sprinkle.  Anyway.  Any books to be found in pristine condition in my house are only that way because I haven’t read them yet.

“A Good and Happy Child”

October 30, 2008 at 4:42 pm | Posted in Fiction | 1 Comment

If you’re scrambling for a scary book to read on Halloween, I’d like to recommend A Good and Happy Child.  I’ve been reading horror off and on since grade school (remember Lois Duncan?) but it had been many years since I could say a book even really creeped me out, much less actually scared me.  I started it Tuesday night, but I had to put it away before bedtime because I kept looking over my shoulder.  Last night I was reading it on the treadmill, and I had to keep stopping to check out every mysterious sound when the house settled.

Justin Evans apparently works as some sort of executive in New York.  It made me wonder just what got him to contemplating the nature of evil.  It also made me wonder whether any of his coworkers knew he was working on a book, and whether he intends to take time off now that he’s published successfully.  Will he write another book?  Will it also be a horror story?

What works about A Good and Happy Child is that it’s a very smart book.  Evans could probably write anything.  While he uses many familiar tropes, this is no genre fiction.  The story is unpredictable, and keeps you hooked until the very last paragraph.  Even then, it’s unsettling because you can still interpret the book in more than one way.  It raises questions that don’t go away once the covers are closed.

David Sedaris

October 29, 2008 at 6:58 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 7 Comments

Trish of Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’? and I went to see David Sedaris read from When You are Engulfed in Flames.  Naturally, he was quite funny and we really enjoyed the show, which was sold out.  After his reading, he graciously answered questions from the audience.  Having seen this, if I ever became a famous author I’m not sure I’d extend the same courtesy to my fans, which is proof that Sedaris has a heart of gold.  You won’t believe what the man puts up with.

A woman a few feet down in our row asked a question.  She was a big brassy blonde, and she puffed up like a pigeon when it was her turn to talk.  She went on for at least 60 seconds about how she’d seen him read before, had postponed surgery to see him again, had given him a book recommendation, and wanted to know if he had read the book.  Can you even imagine the pure unmitigated chutzpah?  He replied that he had not, and then explained that people are always giving him bits of papers, so that after a show he can’t remember what they’re all for.  The woman looked utterly, utterly thrilled with herself and his response.  We were ashamed to be sitting near her.

Now I have to tell you that the book was The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald.  I haven’t read it either, though it’s on my list, and I did read The Blue Flower, which was quite good.  But I do know the book by reputation.  For the life of me, I can’t understand why someone would recommend a ladies’ book club-type book to David Sedaris, much less one with a bleak ending.  What put it into her head that he would like it?  Much less that she should feel entitled to hassle him about it in front of 1600 people three years later?  Mon dieu.

To make matters worse, one of the next questioners proved to be a local eccentric, an older lady in a very odd hat.  It was a sort of brocade jester hat and it wasn’t terribly flattering.  She said she had a radio show on which she had been reading chapters of Sedaris’s books for some time, and she wanted to know if it bothered him.  Not that she was asking permission, just whether it bothered him – as though that had been her goal.  He said it didn’t bother him, but it would if she pretended she had written them.

A man stood up and thanked Sedaris “for sharing your life with us.”  Isn’t that the sort of thing someone would say in a toast at a wedding or an anniversary party?  To someone they actually knew well?  We thought it was terribly presumptuous, on the one hand to act as though this artist is a personal friend, and on the other to assume that what we read accurately reflects his inner life.  Embarrassing!

The questions that weren’t asked were the obvious ones, to my mind.  When can we (eagerly) anticipate your next book?  Have you ever considered making a film?  Would you ever collaborate with your sister on a book?  Can you warn us ahead of time of the sorts of questions that are really rude?

“The Solitary Vice: Against Reading”

October 29, 2008 at 4:01 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | 1 Comment

I would have read The Solitary Vice: Against Reading at some point simply because it’s a book about books.  The subtitle, however, struck me like a thrown gauntlet.  I had to know what a published author has against books.  It’s ironic, isn’t it?  Indeed, we’ve seen contrarian books that purport to be against reading before:  Ruined by Reading, Everything Bad is Good for You, and How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, among others.  Mikita Brottman takes this another step by comparing reading to – gasp – masturbation.  This is emphasized by the cover photograph, and a pretty hilarious illustration in the first chapter.

Brottman describes herself from childhood through college as a complete loser who wanted to do nothing but read novels and watch horror films.  She also has a soft spot for true crime.  I confess I read this with disquiet and an uncomfortable yet strong sense of recognition.  Yep, that was me.  I do tend to disagree with her thesis that reading ruins people’s lives, though, possibly because I consider myself a news junkie first and non-fiction reader second.  I usually only read fiction as required by my book group, when it wins awards, or when it’s a new offering by one of a handful of favorite writers*.

The Solitary Vice is full of penetrating insight into why we read, and why we read particular things.  Brottman describes funny obsessive reading habits, like collecting, insisting on maintaining books in pristine condition, and keeping elaborate lists.  She offers incisive commentary on the appeal of true crime.  The chapter in defense of indulging in lowbrow culture, though, wanders off into a discussion of why we care about celebrities, and it doesn’t touch much on books. 

Brottman lambastes those who read certain “required” books to impress others rather than sticking to what they truly enjoy.  I’ve never understood this attitude particularly, because whenever I read a list of “overrated” books I typically find that I’ve enjoyed them very much.  Brottman singles out Don Quixote, War and Peace, Middlemarch, and The Brothers Karamazov – all books I thought were absolutely terrific.  I use those “required” lists to point me to great books I might otherwise miss.

One of the great features of The Solitary Vice is that it has a lengthy Works Cited section in the back.  If you’re like me, you comb through these for books to add to your list – precisely in the way Brottman finds so amusing.  This is one of the reasons we know Brottman really isn’t against reading – she’s clearly never shaken her own passionate reading habits, so how could she expect us to?

I’ll go so far as to say that The Solitary Vice is a must-read.  It grabbed my attention, challenged some of my assumptions, gave me food for thought in areas that I thought I had pretty well covered, and entertained me with the inimitable sketches that illustrate it.

* Anne Tyler, Stephen King, Tom Robbins, Tana French (please Lord), Lisa Lutz, D. Daniel Judson, Steve Martin, Nick Hornby.  Okay, double handful.

“Put Your Life on a Diet”

October 28, 2008 at 3:41 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | 5 Comments

Check out the subtitle of Gregory Paul Johnson’s book.  Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons Learned from Living in 140 Square Feet.  Can you believe it?  Evidently Johnson has spent the last few years living in a tiny little house he built and put on a trailer.  It doesn’t have a kitchen or bathroom – Johnson’s idea is to “outsource” most functions of his house and keep his living expenses so low that he can afford to work part-time.  It’s insulated like a regular house, and he built it for only $15,000.  In my area, where the cheapest house you can find is still nearly $200,000, this sounds mighty appealing.

I’m enchanted by stories like this, because I’m a natural ascetic.  Granted, I’d sooner give up a bed than a bathroom, but I do succeed in living in only 600 square feet myself, and I think it’s the biggest place I’ve ever lived on my own.  I could go down to 300 in a snap.  My dream a few years ago was to live in a tree house.  Now that I’ve read Johnson’s book, I want to copy him and park my little mini house in the library parking lot.

Here’s a picture of Johnson’s house.  And more tiny houses (with bathrooms).  Aren’t they cute?

Okay, readers, where do you stand on the spectrum?  Would you rather have minimalism and freedom, or a palace with everything that entails?  Or somewhere in between?  Do you think you have enough room now, or do you think you have too much stuff?

At the Library

October 27, 2008 at 4:33 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 3 Comments

Rocket Scientist and I went to San Francisco on Saturday, ostensibly to spend the day together.  But we both knew that one of the main reasons we were there was so I could go to the library.  This is why he’s the best guy ever.

We spent four hours walking around Pier 39, going to the wax museum, and enjoying the fine weather.  I had prepared ahead of time with a series of maps marked with different restaurants and places we could check out.  So we set out to find the library.  As it turned out, though (and as soon as you hear the phrase ‘Google map’ you should know what’s coming), the location was marked a little over a mile from where it actually is.  We found ourselves across town with only an hour before closing.  At last we made it to the correct building, with only 20 minutes to spare.

We entered the building, and I was unprepared for just how huge it is inside.  The squat proportions of the building itself make it look smaller than its actual six stories.  The books extended as far as the eye could see.  I admit that I teared up.  It was obvious I was on a mission, because five minutes later I had a new library card in my hand and we were already in the elevator on the way to the third floor.  In the next ten minutes, I was able to rush about and track down six books off my list.  We made it out the door on the stroke of six.

Going to a large urban library is a big deal if you’ve ever had access to one and then haven’t for an extended period.  It can be truly frustrating to keep looking for books that just aren’t there, or to wander down the three skimpy aisles and see that you’ve read half the interesting books already.  There is nothing like walking into a truly enormous library and knowing that, no matter what, there is no way you could run out of things to read there.

Now I’m all set!  Because I’ve checked books out, I “have” to go back within the next three weeks.  I’m looking forward to expanding my reading list and getting up to all sorts of hijinx.

Horror for Halloween

October 24, 2008 at 4:10 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 4 Comments

Being a horror fan has its drawbacks.  One of them is that, if horror actually scares you, you lose sleep every time you indulge.  So for the last few years I’ve limited myself to watching horror films only on Halloween.  As for reading horror, I make a point to read all of Stephen King’s books as soon as they come out, but otherwise I haven’t touched the genre much since high school.  Alas, this year Just After Sunset won’t be coming out until mid-November, not quite in time for the 31st.

My vote for Scariest Book Ever would have to go to Pet Sematary.  Next would be Thinner, with The Shining in third place.  (Note that these all go to the illustrious Mr. King).  I remember reading The Shining when I was maybe 12, lying on my bed, and suddenly leaping up (still holding the book in my hands), scooting down the hall (still reading), and wedging myself between my brothers on the couch.  We weren’t really on a touchy-feely basis, and they were none too thrilled, but… it was the topiary scene!  Come on!  (Now that we’re all grown up, we occasionally see horror films together, though I’ve lived at least 300 miles away for years.  We saw The Ring, Gothika, and Signs, and I screamed in all of them; everyone else in the theatre laughed – at me.

Probably I’m too sensitive to read scary things.  I don’t know why I keep subjecting myself to it, though I know, like eating garlicky pizza for dinner, that I’ll regret it at bedtime.  One of the big things I have a problem with is the book covers.  It’s easy to deal with a book cover while you’re reading it, because it’s pointing away from you.  But there have been a few books I’ve had to turn upside down on my night stand, because looking at them gave me the heebie-jeebies.  I particularly remember wishing I hadn’t seen one of the photographs in Jack the Ripper: Case Closed, and similarly giving myself a fright with another photo from a book on bog bodies.

If you like this sort of thing, here are some other horror novels I thought were actually scary.  Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and In the Cut by Susanna Moore were all great, and far better than the movies they inspired.  On the other hand, I Am Legend  the movie was both scarier and better than the book – not to mention almost unrecognizably different.  I also thought Diary: A Novel by Chuck Palahniuk did all right as a horror novel, though his Haunted was mostly just gross.

For Halloween this year I plan to read Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box.  This year he published 20th Century Ghosts, which I think was an absolutely terrific, exemplary, and highly original collection of horror short stories.  I’m hoping his earlier work was consistent with this.  We’ll see when I review it next week.

Booking Through Thursday: Coupling

October 23, 2008 at 9:19 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 5 Comments

Here is my response to today’s Booking Through Thursday:

“Name a favorite literary couple and tell me why they are a favorite.  If you cannot choose just one, that is okay too.  Name as many as you like – sometimes narrowing down a list can be extremely difficult and painful.  Or maybe that’s just me.”

It would be a tossup between Jamie Fraser and Claire Beauchamp of Outlander or Henry DeTamble and Clare Abshire of The Time Traveler’s Wife.  (Strangely, both these books involve time travel – not something I read about very often). 

It’s easy to love Jamie and Claire because their adventures splash across thousands of pages, and there are so many details and episodes that they seem almost like real people.  What I like about them is their relationship – Claire speaks her mind and they have an equal say in decisions.  While Jamie is a traditional manly man, Claire is also saving his bacon all the time.  They seem to enjoy and annoy each other in about equal measure, but the best part is reading their random conversations.

Henry and Clare are memorable, partly because their story is so very strange but partly because of the way their characters are drawn.  Henry is a great fantasy date – the cool but bookish rocker who looks like a bad boy but doesn’t act like one – yet I don’t know that I’d be able to put up with his little disorder.  Henry and Clare have probably the most intrinsically romantic relationship in literature.

I’ll tell you who I don’t like.  What is up with Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy?  First of all, I could never love a man I had to call Fitzwilliam.  Second, what would you want with some stuffed shirt who is so dry, rude, and condescending?  Would you want to put up with his family?  I also have to say I’d want no part of living that life, stuck out in the country popping out a bunch of kids and trying not to break the porcelain or stain my little lace dresses.  Aiiieee!

Although I love Jane Eyre, I don’t love Edward Rochester.  And neither should she!  My god, could you imagine what Oprah would make of a guy who locked up his crazy wife in the attic?  And that whole scene where he tries to make Jane jealous – what a jerk.  Sure, it’s romantic that she stands by him when he goes blind, but is that really the thanks she gets?  It sounds like Cinderella had it better.

I’m not so sure about Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, either.  Marry the war profiteer?  Not for me.  Come on, Scarlett, He’s Just Not That Into You!

Worst of all is Jo March and her old dude, what’s his name.  Fritz Bhaer.  OMG I about cried myself to sleep when I first read Little Women and found out she got stuck with him instead of Laurie.  What the hell kind of ending was that?  Ugh.

Two-for-One Review: “The Answer is Always Yes” and “Indignation”

October 23, 2008 at 3:49 pm | Posted in Fiction, Two-for-One Review | 1 Comment

At first glance, The Answer is Always Yes by Monica Ferrell and Indignation by Philip Roth would seem to have nothing in common.  It didn’t even occur to me until I was about halfway through Indignation, but the more I thought about it, the more it clicked.  Both books are about a smart college boy from New York and his struggle to fit in with campus life.  Both books have a prominent female love interest and a gay character.  While the subject is similar, the treatment is quite different.  Ferrell’s hefty debut is more than twice the size of literary lion Roth’s slender contribution.  The settings are nearly 50 years apart, with atmospheres almost diametrically opposed.  Roth’s book seems to pick up where Ferrell’s story leaves off, though I’ll leave the reason why a mystery so you can enjoy both.

The Answer is Always Yes concerns a young guy who is desperate to climb out of geekdom and become popular.  It’s painful and poignant, and rich with all the subtle details of social cues and fashion faux pas.  Ferrell paints a realistic picture of 1990s club life.  There were elements of the narration that I found slightly gimmicky, but they did help resolve some issues of viewpoint that would have been hard to handle in a different way.  I enjoyed Ferrell’s voice and became involved in the story.  I look forward to reading her next effort.

Indignation concerns another young guy who, on the contrary, could hardly care less about popularity.  He has entirely other issues on his mind.  It’s a lightning-fast read, a novella really, and there’s a huge surprise about fifty pages in.  I loved this book.  The only other Roth novel I have read is Portnoy’s Complaint, which was hysterically funny.  Indignation has its funny moments, but it’s more serious and focused, and less neurotic, than the earlier work.  I found that it raised some fascinating philosophical questions.  Having read two books written by the same author nearly 40 years apart, I’m intrigued to go back and read more, especially considering he’s won two Pulitzers and three National Book Awards.

Indignation and The Answer is Always Yes – two compelling, tragic, enjoyable reads.

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