Nerds in the Family

November 26, 2008 at 2:33 am | Posted in Book Blather | 2 Comments

Who knows how it happened, but in my family my 11-year-old nephew Li’l Brain and I are the only first-borns.  His mother is the only child of two only children, and everyone else in three generations is anywhere from second-born to seventh in line.  There really seems to be something to the birth-order theory, because as soon as Li’l Brain was old enough to walk, he started clutter clearing:  carrying dishes to the kitchen, picking up single leaves off the lawn and carrying them to the compost… It wasn’t long before, like me, all he wanted to do was read, utterly confounding his daddy, my youngest brother and definitely not a book person.  By the age of eight, he had already read Moby-Dick.  Unabridged.  I teased my brother about how much his son takes after me.  He said, “No, because he’s good at math, too.”  (And popular, and athletic).

I guess I asked for that one.

Rocket Scientist, likewise, has a bookish niece.  She’s eight and a home schooler.  The first time we met, she leaned over to me and whispered, “I’m a bookworm!”  I leaned toward her and whispered back, “Me too!”  You should see this kid.  With her round face, glasses, and straight dark hair, she’s like the little sister Harry Potter never had.

The strange thing about these young relations of ours is that they’re both the dark-haired older sibling of a same-sex blonde child who isn’t very interested in books.  You have to wonder, does this have anything to do with anything?  Is it just that parents have less time to read to each successive child, or is there really something behind the old saw that blondes have more fun (i.e. less page time)?

Anyway, the reason I’m introducing the junior nerds in our family is to relate an anecdote.  My brother took his boys to the library recently to get library cards – to my shock, he takes them five days a week after Boys and Girls Club.  My brother?  Goes to the library?  More often than I do?  There is no onomatopoeic expression to relate the sound my brain makes when I think about this.  But he is a good father, and a frugal one, and I’m sure he’s already realized that buying all Li’l Brain’s reading material would require him to take on a second job.  Here’s the kicker:  Li’l Brain was so busy showing off his new library card at school that he inadvertently misplaced it.  My brother explained to him how, if someone used the missing card, they could check out CDs and DVDs and steal them, and guess who would be liable?  Therefore, Li’l Brain would not be able to check out books.  So about a week and a half went by, when lo and behold, the poor kid found the derelict card in the bowels of his backpack.  He ran up with it, saying, “Now can I check out books?”

Who says reading has declined among the young?  Hmm?

“Of Parrots and People”

November 25, 2008 at 5:44 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | 3 Comments

Mira Tweti must have been born to write a book about birds.  Doesn’t Mira mean ‘look’ in Spanish?  And of course Tweti sounds like, well, a bird call.  Isn’t that charming?

Of Parrots and...

Of Parrots and People has its charming parts.  The beginning of the book talks about the intelligence of parrots and the bond they can form with humans.  The famous Alex, the African grey who worked with Irene Pepperberg, appears, as does N’Kisi, another well-known intelligent parrot.  I’ve spent a great deal of time with birds myself for over 25 years – my first love was Gorgeous the double yellow nape Amazon – and I now live with a grey parrot myself.  Noelie is indeed an unusually intelligent, sensitive creature.  I was looking at a handbook on training your bird to do tricks, and suddenly Noelie leaned over and started looking at the book.  I glanced over to the right-hand page, and sure enough, there was a B&W photo of another grey!  She’d recognized her kind in a 3″ photo before I did.  Anyone who has lived with a bright, well-adjusted parrot can do little else but constantly spout praise about these birds.

The trouble is, not all birds are well-adjusted.  Tweti moves forward in the book to expose an epidemic problem of unwanted parrots who wind up in rescue shelters, or horrifically neglected or abused.  It’s all downhill from there – the main point of the book is how the American trade in parrots leads directly to smuggling and the decimation of wild bird populations worldwide.  I couldn’t look through all the photos in the center of the book in one sitting because I started to cry.

Of Parrots and People really is a wonderful and important book.  I learned a lot, though I thought I knew pretty much everything about parrots already.  I just wish the news wasn’t so hard to take.

“Downtown Owl”

November 24, 2008 at 5:18 pm | Posted in Fiction | 3 Comments

I loved this book!  I loved it!  I loved it so much!  If I found more fiction like this, I’d read novels a lot more often.

Gush gush gush.

Downtown Owl is Chuck Klosterman’s first work of fiction (after four nonfiction books), and if it’s any indication of his talents, then I hope he’s working on another one right now.

How would I describe Downtown Owl?  I thought of it as Northern Exposure written by Douglas Coupland, with maybe a touch of Ghost World.  It’s one of those stories where pretty much nothing happens except for some fantastic, fascinating, quirky conversations.  I kept following Rocket Scientist around reading bits of it to him.  We went to bed when I still had about 30 pages left, and after tossing and turning for a while, I got up and finished it in the guest room.  That was the part where, suddenly, all the action happened!  It was one of the more dramatic endings I’d ever read in a novel, and I hadn’t seen it coming at all.

One of the things I liked about this book was that I had to work to figure out what the cover design meant.  Those white dots are actually cut-outs.  As I was reading the book, I kept playing with them, peeking down behind the plastic library cover to see if there was something inside, wondering if I was going to be prompted to put my fingers through them or something.  Then, when I put the book down, I thought, Ah, I get it now!  It was like staring at the cover of R.E.M.’s Green album and wondering why it was orange, then suddenly looking up at the wall and understanding.  Only, not quite.

Anyway.  Downtown Owl is quite the story.  I enjoyed it tremendously and I hope you do, too.

My Dream about Stephen King

November 23, 2008 at 7:14 am | Posted in Book Blather, Book Dreams | 4 Comments

This is what my man Rocket Scientist had to say when I told him: “You had a sex dream about Stephen King?  You’ve definitely been reading too much.”

In the dream, I met Mr. King at a reading, and invited him home to meet my family.  For some reason, we lived on a farm.  (In real life, I grew up in a slum in a medium-sized city; I don’t think I’ve set foot on a farm since about 1983).  We decided to have a barbecue, and Mr. King did the honors, fixing ribs.  (I asked RS, “Do you… barbecue… ribs?”  My family never ate pork, and in fact we are 3 vegans and one vegetarian, so this dream was just getting weirder and weirder).

Afterward, we got our flirt on.  I wanted to impress this favorite author of mine, so I started telling him I’d written a poem about him for my blog.  First, though, I had to tell him the one I wrote about Dan Brown, to sort of explain why I’d started writing goofy poems about different authors.  Stephen King was offended and thought my Dan Brown poem was in poor taste, so I wound up not telling him the one about himself.  Then I wound up sitting in his lap and… Fade to black.  In the morning, he was gone.

Then I woke up.  It’s hard to say which one of us in reality would have thought this scenario was stranger.  He’s in his sixties and I think his kids are older than me.  He’s famously been married to Tabitha King since at least the early 70s.  The idea of me being a pork-eating farm girl and throwing myself at a celebrity is even stranger than the idea of Stephen King chasing after girls younger than his own daughters.  The only thing I have to say for myself is that at least there weren’t any, um, “graphic” scenes.

“Bar Flower”

November 21, 2008 at 6:29 pm | Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 1 Comment

Memoirs!  How I love them!  There’s something addictive about peering into someone else’s life and learning all the grisly details.  It’s even better when a memoirist like Lea Jacobson comes along with a well-written book like Bar Flower: My Decadently Destructive Days and Nights as a Tokyo Nightclub Hostess.  I just could not put this book down.  I took it with me on the bus to San Francisco (where I’d made a special trip mainly so I could get this book) and I read 200 pages in 2 1/2 hours.

Jacobson presents her story with expert pacing.  She begins the book with “where she ended up” and then tracks back, like in Moulin Rouge, where the foreshadowing is intrinsic  to the tone of regret.  Decadent, indeed.

Bar Flower would have been interesting even if it happened in, say, a Las Vegas casino.  Jacobson adds a great detail about life in Japan as a gaijin that, again, would make an interesting book on its own.  She also has a keen feminist take on the culture that I thoroughly enjoyed.  You’ll never look at your laundry basket the same way after reading this book.  Part travelogue, part caution, Bar Flower is a gripping, fascinating look at a sequestered life most of us will never experience.

“Gladiator” – Coming Soon to a Blog Near You

November 21, 2008 at 6:10 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Well, you asked for it.  I’ve enlisted Rocket Scientist to co-write a post on the historical inaccuracies of the movie Gladiator.  He makes his own armor, after all, so he’s going to help me on the warfare stuff.  Neither of us has seen it in a few years, though it lingers on in memory, so we’re going to watch it this weekend and take vigorous notes.

I’d rather be specific than say things like, “Well, the costumes and armor were all wrong and they shouldn’t have used stirrups.”  That’s not a critique; that’s just complaining.

If the occasion ever arises that we, Faithful Reader, might meet, you might not want to invite me to a movie!  First of all, I like to sit in the very front row.  Second, I often guess at the dialogue, and even though I’m usually – preternaturally – right, it’s pretty obnoxious.  Third, well, if it has any costumes then you’re not going to want to hear me go off on my opinion of them.  These are all reasons why I’ve only seen one movie all year.  Well, that, and the fact that I’ve been busy reading 363 books.

Booking Through Thursday: Honesty

November 21, 2008 at 12:15 am | Posted in Book Blather | 9 Comments

This is my response to this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

I receive a lot of review books, but I have never once told lies about the book just because I got a free copy of it.  However, some authors seem to feel that if they send you a copy of their book for free, you should give it a positive review.

Do you think reviewers are obligated to put up a good review of a book, even if they don’t like it?  Have we come to a point where reviewers *need* to put up disclaimers to (hopefully) save themselves from being harassed by unhappy authors who get negative reviews?

Honest-eeeee… is SUCH a lonely worrrrrd… Billy Joel, you sang it so well!

I think reviewers are obligated not to lie about books.  It does a major disservice to readers to delude them into purchasing a book that they would have passed on due to a more honest critique.  Especially in tough economic times, each book purchased is bought at the expense of another book the reader decides not to buy.  It goes against the nature of capitalism itself to promote weaker books in place of better books.  (If I’d bought every book I’ve read so far this year, I would have spent a minimum of $2065.51, not including tax or shipping).  Even for those of us who are already too broke to buy books and instead mooch them or get them from the library, there is still only so much time in a day to read.  Granted, I’ve read 362 books so far this year, so each one I’ve read has constituted 0.3% of my reading time, but for someone who reads maybe 10 books a year, it’s hardly fair to convince her to waste 10% of her free time reading a second- or third-rate book.

To my mind, there are a few strategies to follow when reviewing free books.  First, if you can’t in good conscience give a positive review, contact the author, agent, or publisher and either tell them or send them a draft of the review you would post.  Then, if they can’t take the heat, give them the opportunity to ask not to have it posted.  Instead, write about how depressing it is that you haven’t read anything great lately, how you have no good blog topics, and how all your readers are going to give up on you and start reading conspiracy theory websites instead.  Second, tell the author, agent, or publisher up front that if you don’t care for the book, you won’t review it in the first place.  They can’t force you to review a book.  The agreement on LibraryThing about accepting review copies of books says that you don’t have to review it, but if you do you’re more likely to receive future review copies.  That sounds fair to me.  Third, cheat and just compare it to similar books, saying that if someone liked X, they’ll probably also like Y.  Think of it as the “you have poor taste, but it’s not my fault” strategy.  Fourth, use heavy sarcasm and hope they’ll think you’re being sincere.

As for disclaimers, I don’t think they would necessarily do any good.  Some people, apparently, are so deranged that it leads one to wonder if they’ve been exposed to rabies.  We can’t really stop such a person from threatening legal repercussions.  I have no idea why an author would expect to be protected from the same level of criticism that actors and filmmakers experience, or indeed the same level of outright insult that all other public figures routinely undergo, other than to assume that more writers happen to suffer from mental illness and/or substance abuse than other creative types.  Which would obviously be unfair and wrong and have no basis in reality.  *blink blink*

Self-published authors, even more so, need to expect a process similar to American Idol, only with far, far less exposure.  I read that something on the order of 200,000 books are published a year, and that’s just in the English language.  The vast majority of them are simply going to fall by the wayside.  Nobody is entitled to being handled with kid gloves, or to any other special consideration.  If you couldn’t find an agent or a publisher for your book, just be glad anybody was willing to read it at all.  It’s a sort of moral victory if you can convince even one person to finish the whole thing – other than your mom (assuming she’s not the book group type).  And if that one person liked it even a little bit, then… you can die happy.

An Author Who Shall Remain Nameless said recently that it was unethical to publish negative reviews and comments about someone or his work.  I think it would only be unethical if you actually thought the work was good, but had some venial personal reason to disparage the writer, for instance if he stole your girlfriend or called you names in third grade.  What’s unethical is to pressure someone to censor her speech for your personal benefit.  I got an A in my ethics course in college, so you can trust me on that.

National Book Award winner!

November 20, 2008 at 5:18 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Fiction | Leave a comment

Literary awards have become my obsession.  I don’t mean for me – I just want to know who’s winning them so I can rush out and read the book.  Today I knew to check who had won the National Book Award because I’d actually put it in my calendar.

This year’s National Book Award for fiction went to Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen.  Evidently it’s a condensed version of a trilogy he’d already written.  900 pages, condensed?  Oy.  Anyway, I checked Amazon and I’m seeing excellent reviews, including from a fellow who had already read the trilogy and opted to read this book as well.  Now that guy must read a lot.

I’m going to add Shadow Country to my list for next year, the Year of Big Fat Books.  My TBR pile is getting a bit unwieldy at the moment as it is.  I’m glad to say, though, that I’d read one of the short list nominees, The Lazarus Project, and it was fascinating.  And much shorter.

“A Mercy”

November 20, 2008 at 5:04 pm | Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

When a literary master like Toni Morrison puts out a new book, one picks it up with a frisson of anticipation.  Will it be great?  Was it only published because of the author’s reputation?  Is it so great that I won’t understand it?  I’m glad to say that A Mercy was terrific.  It’s brief without being minimalist, evoking a lush, forgotten world and highly complex characters to such a degree that it’s hard to believe she managed to do it in under 200 pages.

Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character, a style that I know is unnerving to some.  Don’t worry, though; it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s talking.  You won’t want to miss this vivid novel.  Enjoy figuring out exactly what the title means – it’s answered at the end of the book, but I believe more than one act in the story could be referred to as A Mercy.  Anyway.  I loved it, and I hope you do too.

“Stuart: A Life Backwards”

November 19, 2008 at 5:02 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | Leave a comment

What exactly is A Life Backwards?  In Stuart, Alexander Masters does something unusual for a biography:  He starts out with a rather messed-up adult individual and tracks backward through the incidents of his life to try to find out how he got that way.  In this case, the strategy is absolutely effective and compelling.

The Stuart in question probably isn’t someone you’d go out of your way to get to know.  A homeless junkie, he’d been in and out of prison for acts of extreme violence and aggression.  If you’d seen him on the street, you might well have asked, “What happened to you that you turned out that way?”  While his story is undoubtedly unique, it might be a fair indicator of what exactly does happen to people to land them on the street.

This book is a real contradiction in that it’s hysterically funny and heartbreakingly sad.  Masters’s telling of Stuart’s life has one sucker-punch after another.  Just as you wonder if things could get any worse, they do.  But all along you’re snickering and checking out Masters’s illustrations.  The story is very rich and definitely a memorable read.

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