Stepmother Shower

April 30, 2009 at 4:34 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Young Adult Fiction | 2 Comments

I have an acquaintance who is having her fifth baby shower.  Once upon a time, showers were for the first baby, with the assumption that the baby things would be passed down.  Now it’s more of a reason to have a party.  This is the kind of party for which there is no bachelorette equivalent.  What’s more, nobody ever has a shower for new stepmothers.

I was thinking of this and wondering what sorts of gifts would be appropriate.  It would depend on what kind of stepmother and what the guests thought about the children.  An evil stepmother would naturally need a pointy black hat, a broom, a black cat,  a large cauldron, and a magic mirror.  No bread products could be served in case the children managed to make a trail after they were abandoned in the woods.  Poisoned apples, however, would be allowed.

On the other hand, if the children were wicked, the new stepmother would need a little moral support.  A large bottle of aspirin (or perhaps bourbon) (or Valium) would be essential.  Also bubble bath.  A lie detector and a ping pong paddle labeled “Attitude Adjuster.”  (My childhood babysitter had one of these hung on the kitchen wall near the fridge).

Seriously, in the nature of a shower, I am hoping I can drum up some Young Adult book recommendations.  I want to start off on the right foot with family reading time, and what I’m looking for are some really rip-roaring, suspenseful, exciting, or dramatic books we can read together.  The young lady in question is really embarrassed by swearing, so language alerts would be really helpful.  Any ideas would be gratefully appreciated.

Milestone

April 29, 2009 at 6:29 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 3 Comments

Today, I finished my 143rd book of the year.  In 2007, it took me all year to read that much, including several children’s books.  It looks like my average page count is higher, too.

If you follow this blog, you know I read about a book a day.  That only started in 2008.  The one thing I changed was to wonder what would happen if I finished one book before I started another, since in the past I would always dabble between half a dozen or more titles at a time.  As soon as it occurred to me that I could read a book a day, I wanted to.

Wouldn’t you?

Of course I have to take advantage of this opportunity while I can.  In another month, I’ll go from Single, No Responsibilities to Stepmom with a House and a Dog.  Anyone who has to do more than two loads of laundry a week is probably laughing maniacally at me right now!

“Anathem”

April 28, 2009 at 4:28 pm | Posted in Fiction, Science Fiction | 2 Comments

Nine-Hundred-Page Neal has done it again.  If you like ginormous science fiction novels that contain entire carefully realized universes, Anathem is the book for you.  If you’ve read anything else by Neal Stephenson, you’ll most likely have begun to feel the urge to read this the moment you heard it was out.  He has a tendency to develop diehard fans, because nobody else can do what he does.

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What Stephenson does is to lead the reader down the garden path, until what would have seemed like impossibly abstruse scientific concepts are actually comprehensible.  In the case of Anathem, he includes three capsule lessons in the back that can be incorporated into the story, or ignored if one isn’t that curious.  This is a clever technique in that it makes the reader feel just that much more alert and intelligent, and he is able to take the plot into places it couldn’t have gone in less capable hands.  Reading Stephenson’s books feeds your brain in the way that simple consumption of genre fiction can’t.

Anathem revolves around the idea of a monastic community that reveres science and rational discourse, while the secular world is the place for dogmatic religious ideas.  While the book is a classic space opera in some ways, it’s really about the nature of consciousness.  The conversations on this topic are absolutely irresistible.

Now, there are some tropes common to most sci fi.  I haven’t read much of it lately, so it took me about 100 pages to get rolling in this book.  For some reason, I tend to get irritated with the character names and their attempts to sound alien, yet familiar.  It also takes a while to get used to all the neologisms – Anathem has a 19-page glossary, and I found myself keeping a bookmark there to make it easier to refer to.  Once I had absorbed this material, I got sucked into the story, making this massive tome a fairly quick read.

I must share my favorite quote from this book, which is a massive spoiler, so only read it if you’re not planning to read the book:

“Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs,” I said.  “We have a protractor.”

Reading Diversity Meme

April 27, 2009 at 6:10 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 1 Comment

I encountered this meme on A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, and found it arresting.  As I read through the questions, I realized I didn’t even know if I had read books under these categories this year! 

In going through my list, it turned out I had, and I still think there might be some that I read without realizing.  After all, even if there is an author photo, how would one know for sure?  I can’t claim to be so good at linguistics that I would automatically be able to identify an ethnicity through a name.  Due to various factors, the name isn’t that helpful anyway.  I’m really talking about race, because as far as I’m concerned there is no way to identify sexual orientation unless the author discusses it in the book or is very “out.”

The other question is, do we deliberately set out to read books by marginalized writers?  Or do we just read what we read and discover that some writers have the same background we do, and some do not?  Is it a good thing or a bad thing that I found myself more or less oblivious in these matters?

Name the last book by a female author that you’ve read.

Sing Them Home, by Stephanie Kallos.  Out of curiosity, I checked, and it turns out 34% of the books I’ve read this year were by women authors.  One was co-written with a man.  I have no idea what this means, though I suspect that my figures are thrown off by the amount of non-fiction I read, which seems to be more likely to have male authors.  Does this make me pre- or post-feminist?

Name the last book by an African or African-American author that you’ve read.

Incognegro, by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece.  It’s about a journalist who can “pass” for white and investigates lynchings during the 1930s. 

Name one from a Latino/a author.

2666, by Roberto Bolano.  Due to the page count, I hope this one counts!

How about one from an Asian country or Asian-American?

Stuffed and Starved, by Raj Patel.  I also read books by Nami Mun, Aravind Adiga, and the Dalai Lama.  Next in my stack is The Vagrants, by Yiyun Li.

What about a GLBT writer?

Don Quixote, Which Was a Dream, by Kathy Acker.  I also read Hack, by Melissa Plaut, and Body of Work, by Christine Montross.  I would be tremendously surprised if none of the other authors I read this year were gay, but again, how would I know?  Is it my business anyway?

Why not name an Israeli/Arab/Turk/Persian writer, if you’re feeling lucky?

Persepolis I & II, by Marjane Satrapi.

Any other “marginalized” authors you’ve read lately?

I don’t really know how to answer this one.  I read Hands of My Father, about a man raised by deaf parents, but I don’t know if that counts.  Who is marginalized besides women, people of non-white ethnicity, or GLBT writers?  This is the question that is making me think the most.  I’d have to say prisoners and the economically disadvantaged, off the top of my head.  Are writers truly “marginalized” if they are able to get published?  I’m thinking the truly marginalized are most likely not even literate, so how can we read their words?

Do you read nonfiction regularly?  Do you read it in a different way or place than you read fiction?

I do.  I read 48% non-fiction this year, slightly more if you count memoir.  I tend to “brace myself” when I read fiction.  I find non-fiction more approachable and almost always a faster read.

So there we have it.  In examining our reading pile, do all our writers resemble one another?  Could they all live comfortably in the same neighborhood?  Does it mean anything when I read 10 books by male authors in a row?

“Little Bee”

April 27, 2009 at 4:52 pm | Posted in Fiction | 1 Comment

Little Bee is a book of a higher order.  It’s not just a fascinating read; it has more than charismatic characters; it goes beyond being simply unforgettable.  Chris Cleave has written a book that has more to offer than entertainment, and asks more of the reader than simply to see the world in a different way.

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The story starts with a mystery, something that has enough dramatic weight in itself to carry the story.  When this mystery is resolved about a third of the way through the book, we are surprised to find that our involvement in the story only intensifies.  This is part of why any review you will find of this book won’t tell you much of anything about the plot.  (I never do that anyway, because I hate knowing the central plot point before I even crack the cover).

Little Bee is a serious book, yes, but it’s light-hearted in its own way.  I found it uplifting, and I hope you do too.

Booking Through Thursday: Symbolism

April 23, 2009 at 9:42 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 3 Comments

My response to this week’s Booking Through Thursday question:

My husband is not an avid reader, and he used to get very frustrated in college when teachers would insist discussing symbolism in a literary work when there didn’t seem to him to be any. He felt that writers often just wrote the story for the story’s sake and other people read symbolism into it.

It does seem like modern fiction just “tells the story” without much symbolism. Is symbolism an older literary device, like excessive description, that is not used much any more? Do you think there was as much symbolism as English teachers seemed to think? What are some examples of symbolism from your reading?

This question makes me wonder if “the husband” is an engineer.  I once helped a coworker who was a mechanical engineer pass a poetry class.  He wasn’t doing well because he just saw no point to the subject.  He walked away with a newfound appreciation for Carl Sandburg after I showed him how different “The mist arrived on tiny feline paws” was from the original.  Sometimes there’s more to something than we see at first glance.

I think there are authors who deliberately use symbolism, and then those who believe that they don’t.  It’s a truism that authors are often surprised at what readers and critics find in their work that they didn’t put there.  So, we could say that there are two kinds of symbolism: intentional and unintentional.

To me there would be absolutely no point in reading a story that lacked symbolism entirely.  Let me tell you a story.  “Once upon a time there was a boy who ate an apple.  Then he went for a walk.  The end.”  Did you feel enriched by that story?  Did it make you want to read more?  How about this?  “Celia had become clingy, Mark thought, and it was time to let her go.  He finished eating his apple, threw it into the trash, and walked on.”  Still boring, okay, but at least there’s some reason for the apple to be there.

The thing about symbolism is that we’re only likely to catch it if it resonates with us in some way.  For instance, I often feel that I’m missing something when I read stories about motherhood, miscarriages, etc.  Just because a story doesn’t seem to have overt, heavy-handed, deliberate symbolism doesn’t mean that elements of it can’t symbolize certain things for the reader.  This is probably more true of books after a certain amount of time has passed – the characters may symbolize a vanished era in a way the author never could have foreseen.

Upton Sinclair wrote of The Jungle that he aimed at the public’s heart, but accidentally hit it in the stomach.  His intention to write a story symbolic of unfair labor practices succeeded instead in drawing attention to unsafe food handling practices.  In this sense we can’t always accept the author as the final arbiter of what his or her work signifies.

There are times when a reader misconstrues an artist’s intent to a degree that enters the realm of legend.  For example, Charles Manson’s relationship to the Beatles’ White Album, the young boys who started a fire based on a Beavis and Butthead episode, or the urban myth that many serial killers are influenced by Catcher in the Rye.  I think this is the exception that proves the rule.

“The Book of Dead Philosophers”

April 23, 2009 at 3:28 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | 1 Comment

This is probably one of the best ideas for a book ever to have been thought up:  Hold philosophers accountable for the viability of their philosophy by examining how they faced the ultimate test, death. 

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It sounds grim but it isn’t, really.  Simon Critchley definitely has his funny moments.  Even the title, The Book of Dead Philosophers, is funny.  It sounds a bit Monty Python.  The book itself is divided into “about 190” encyclopedic sections on the individual philosophers of note.  I would recommend dipping into it at random rather than reading it straight through.

Admittedly the concept is a bit more successful than the book itself.  It assumes at least some familiarity with philosophy as a discipline, and many of the entries contain only the briefest details of the life and death of the individual.  The parts that deal with the actual contents of the philosophy often sketch out the accomplishments of the person, rather than the thought system and how it works.  It’s definitely not to be approached as an introductory guide to philosophy.

Reading through the various deaths of nearly 200 people throughout history was very effective as a memento mori.  There’s a bit of everything:  illness, nasty falls, shot by a stalker, simple old age, slaughter by army, beheading, poisoning, you name it.  Somewhere in there it’s entirely possible we’ll find our own mode of eventual death.  It is to be hoped that on that day we can say to ourselves, “Oh, it’s probably not so bad.”

Oops

April 22, 2009 at 4:05 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 2 Comments

I’ve been in a rut the last week or so.  I keep feeling like no matter how much I read, I’m just not getting anywhere.  Today I figured out why.

I track my reading in a spreadsheet, including the page count and the high and low price for each book.  Somehow as I was adjusting the cell range for my total, I was moving the selection area down one row at a time rather than expanding it.  In this way I “lost” nearly 2500 pages!  I finally realized something was up because I had been stuck at around 40,000 pages all week, and my count for today went down instead of up.

The funny part is that some people read about 2500 pages over the course of the entire year.

Right now I’m averaging about 382 pages per day.  At that rate I will have read very nearly 140,000 pages by the end of the year.  I should also have cleared 450 titles.  Since I’m trying for 500, this is not encouraging news.  I’ll have to find a way to read an additional book and a half per week on top of what I’ve been doing.

There is a bright side, though, as last year it took me until May 17 to read as many books as I have so far this year.  In that sense, I’m almost a month ahead!

Two-for-One Review: “Yes Man”

April 21, 2009 at 6:20 pm | Posted in Fiction, Memoir, Two-for-One Review | Leave a comment

When I heard of the book Yes Man, by Danny Wallace, I knew I had to read it.  Shortly after, I heard it was being made into a movie.  I had the chance to watch the film shortly after reading the book, so we’ll do some compare and contrast.

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First, I have to say that I adore Jim Carrey.

Second, I have to say that it would be almost impossible to imagine a book and a movie with less in common than these two.

Third, I was surprised that, this being the case, I enjoyed both.

The book Yes Man is a true story.  The premise is that this guy is a bit depressed and becoming a recluse, and one day he has an epiphany and decides that he has to say Yes to everything.  Complications ensue.  In this sense, the movie is based on the book.

But what did they do?  The book is set in London; the movie is set in LA.  The hero of the book is Danny Wallace; in the movie he’s suddenly Carl Allen.  Danny works as a journalist with a very loose schedule; Carl works at a bank and has to wear a suit, etc.  Danny has a random conversation with a stranger on the bus, leading to his ephiphany; Carl is dragged to a New Age seminar where thousands of other people already follow the Yes philosophy.  Both characters travel, help the homeless, learn new skills, and have to be dogsbody to their friends.  Otherwise almost every single plot point is different.

I loved Yes Man the book.  It made me snort with laughter several times.  I read parts of it out loud to anyone who would listen.  It had a really positive message, but it also included some healthy doses of reality.  I really enjoyed Yes Man the movie, but I suspect I would have enjoyed it more if I’d seen it before I read the book.  It was entertaining – especially the scenes when Zooey Deschanel performs in her band – but it got off to a slow start because Carrey’s character was so mopey.

So my recommendation is, see the movie, then read the book.  And maybe even consider trying to say Yes to everything yourself!  I have to say I’m tempted.

“Anti-Bride Etiquette Guide”

April 20, 2009 at 4:50 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | 9 Comments

Now that I’m planning a wedding, I find myself in a quandary.  I want it to go well and I want to avoid any embarrassing blunders, but I also want to avoid being Bridezilla and thinking everyone in the universe cares about my wedding.  So when I saw this Anti-Bride Etiquette Guide I picked it up.

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After reading through it, I have mixed feelings.  On the one hand, I agree that there are many hoary old traditions that need to be eliminated.  For instance, I have always loathed the garter toss, and Carolyn Gerin marks it for extinction.  On the other hand, there are things that I think are a tradition for a good reason, and I was a little chagrined to see that they might be considered expendable.

The first chapter of the book dealt with the engagement.  There was a section on etiquette issues such as telling the groom you didn’t like the ring he picked out, or wanted to help pay for a more expensive one than he could afford.  I think my head actually started spinning around when I read that.  How can two people hope to start off as a married couple with expectations like that?  “Oooh… sorry, I thought I said square cut, you oaf.”

There was another section on handling the errant bridesmaids who began expressing doubts about the amount they were expected to shell out for dresses and airfare.  It went along the lines of, “This is my special day and, after all, it’s only money.”  An air raid siren went off somewhere in my mind.  This attitude might explain why there was a section on trying to find a replacement for the maid of honor who bails at the last minute.

I was impressed with the layout of the book, and I found some sections very helpful, such as the proper wording for invitations for different situations and what levels of dress and decor went together for ceremonies at different times of day.  There were tactful discussions of topics such as returning the gifts if the wedding is canceled, and reminders not to include registry information in the invitation.  The book was well done.

That said, I think the book I was looking for might have been something like an Alternative Bride’s Guide.  Why not eliminate the engagement ring hoopla and spend that money on doing the wedding debt-free?  Goodbye to the engagement party, the rehearsal dinner, and the wedding party.  Just focus on enjoying the party and give your poor friends and family a break.

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