Thursday, December 30, 2010

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (2009)

I've loved all the graphic novels that my friend St. Murse has lent me, but Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (2009) may be my favorite of them all.

This book starts with a lightning bolt -- Asterios Polyp is in a sad state in his apartment in New York City when it is struck by lightning and burns to the ground. He grabs a few objects and his wallet, and buys a ticket on a bus as far away as his money will take him which happens to be the aptly named Apogee, NY. Asterios wasn't always so sad and random. In fact, he used to have a successful career teaching architecture and he used to share his life with his wife, Hana, an artist. The story of how everything went wrong and how everything got to be sort of right again is told through flashes back and forward through the journey of Asterios Polyp.

That isn't even the start of it, though: Mazzucchelli's drawings are both straight-forward and complex, his use of color and the way his drawings reflect the philosophies of the book are genius, and the structure of the story is just perfect. This is a hefty and satisfying book to hold, and one that you will read way faster than you intend, so just plan on reading it twice. At least.

[p.s. Holiday travels and a long-reading book have disrupted my posting for the past few weeks, but I should be back to normal pretty soon.]

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Carnet de Voyage by Craig Thompson (2004)

The always awesome St. Murse has been my go-to graphic novel guy lately, and he didn't disappoint when he loaned me Craig Thompson's Carnet de Voyage (2004).

Thompson, as you may remember, was the author of Blankets and Good-bye, Chunky Rice, both of which are awesome. Carnet de Voyage (which means travel journal in French) is Thompson's artistic diary documenting his 2004 European book tour and a personal side-trip to Morocco. It gives us a look at life on a book tour; a window onto Thompson's personal feelings, doubts and insecurities; and some gorgeous drawings of France, the Alps, Morocco, and Barcelona.

Since Thompson opened his life to his readers in Blankets, this loosely chronological collection of drawings and writings almost feels like a sequel (what is "Craig" up to now?!). His drawings of street scenes, old friends, and friendly strangers are more real than any photograph, and his documentation of his insecurities, disappointments, and triumphs make me interested to read whatever he wants to put out -- tightly structured graphic novel, loose and quick travel journal, or anything in between.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi (2010)

My latest book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program is The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi (2010). This is Indian author Shanghvi's second book, and it has received some positive reviews, but for the most part, I just couldn't get that into it.

The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay is the story of Karan Seth, a young photographer who comes to Bombay as a schoolteacher, falls in love with the city, and vows to document all its contradictions through his art. While working as a photojournalist, he is assigned the job of photographing Samar Arora, a former piano prodigy who gave up music and now lives the rich playboy life, accompanied by his boyfriend, an American writer named Leo, and his best friend Zaira, a famous Bollywood actress. Karan gets caught up in Samar's orbit, eventually becoming very close friends with Zaira as well. Things are further complicated with Karan meets Rhea, a beautiful (and married) potter with whom he has an affair of both the mind and the body. A shocking and violent event derails all our characters in the second half of the book, and the book closes as the characters come to terms with their changed world and their past decisions.

There is nothing wrong with the plot or, for the most part, the characters. My problems with this book have to do with the writing. Shanghvi never met an adjective he didn't decide to throw into his book, and he uses metaphors the way other authors use pronouns. Sometimes these metaphors are cringingly sexual:

Glee dripped out of Natasha like precum.


It occurred to Mantra that Priya had a crusty librarian's voice, one that could only be relieved with a dildo.

Sometimes they are just meandering and overly poetic:

Her voice wrapped itself around him; it was easy to imagine that at the end of the corridor of her voice there was a little room in which a blues singer was hiding from the world, serenading emptiness.

A little bit of this florid description goes a long way, and Shanghvi goes way beyond my level of patience for this kind of thing. His dialogue is also often at odds with his characters, moving the action along in sloppy skips instead of remaining true to the people and relationships that he has created for us.

All that being said, sometimes Shanghvi's technique of throwing all the adjectives into a bag, shaking it around, and pouring it onto the page ends up with some really nice and evocative descriptions of Bombay and his characters. And the plot really is engaging -- if it hadn't been, there is no way I could have forged my way through the text.

Only recommended if you have a lot of patience or a great interest in Bombay. Or if you haven't gotten your annual dose of adjectives.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Hate Annual #8 by Peter Bagge (2010)

It is probably cheating to write up a slim little comics collection when I usually write about big old books, but I recently read Hate Annual #8 (2010) by Peter Bagge and I'm sort of a completist, so I'm going to post about it here.

I happen to love Peter Bagge and his grotesque realism, and I found a lot to enjoy in this comic. The centerpiece is another installment in the world of Buddy and Lisa in which Lisa, bored with staying at home and watching their kid, joins a two-woman band with another "cool mom" that she meets at a PTA meeting. Their first gig does not go quite as Lisa had planned, but both she and Buddy take it in stride.

Also collected here are a series of wonderful one-page "scientist" comics that were originally printed in Discover Magazine, confessions of a book festival attendee, and a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of Reefer Madness. And more!

I shall always give a million thumbs up to the great Peter Bagge.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

My Life, Starring Dara Falcon by Ann Beattie (1997)

I got a copy of Ann Beattie's My Life, Starring Dara Falcon (1997) when it came out in paperback while I was working at Barnes and Noble in college. We had some remaindered copies, so the covers were torn off and sent back to the distributors, and the books were put in a free box for employees. I've been carrying around this coverless copy of the book for a dozen years, and finally decided to read it. Now I'm happy that I can just recycle the thing.

The book is not bad or poorly written, it is just very dull. Very very very dull. It is the 1970s and our protagonist, Jean Warner, has been living in a small town in New Hampshire for a few years with her husband Bob, who she married at age 19, and near his large family. Jean has no family -- her parents died in a plane crash when she was young, and she is estranged from the aunt who raised her.

Jean and Bob's marriage isn't really working out. He spends a lot of time in Boston, where is is taking classes, and she spends a lot of time feeling resentful and overthinking her relationships with his family members. Then Dara moves back to town. Dara Falcon is an aspiring actress, a dramatic talker, and an unconventional person. At first Jean doesn't really like her. Then Dara pulls Jean into her orbit and Jean thinks she is just great.

Things sort of happen -- Jean leaves her husband, Dara leaves her boyfriend and moves to New York, there is a play, there is a fancy ring, someone dies, there are revelations, but none of the pieces fit together into any kind of moving whole. The book hinges on the changing intensities of the relationship between Jean and Dara, but not enough time is spent on building this critical relationship. It would have been better if Jean was one-sidedly obsessed with Dara, or if the two of them were mutually bad for each other, or if Dara held more sway over Jean's decisions. As it is written, it is sort of all of these things and sort of none of these things. Nothing is pushed to a dramatic point, or realistically described and character building either. Except for one scene where Jean spontaneously sleeps with the grown son of one of her husband's friends (which was a great scene, but ends up going nowhere), everything is quotidian, predictable, and unaffecting with a big scoop of predictable 1970s feminism on top.

But at least this poor coverless book won't be on my bookshelf anymore...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Fatal Bullet:: The Assassination of President James A. Garfield by Rick Geary (1999)

Yet another friend (the always awesome St. Murse) recently lent me yet another entry in Rick Geary's Treasury of Victorian Murder series, The Fatal Bullet: A True Account of the Assassination, Lingering Pain, Death, and Burial of James A. Garfield, Twentieth President of the United States. Also Including the Inglorious Life and Career of the Despised Assassin Guiteau (1999). Whew.

Much like The Borden Tragedy, Geary gives his reader a straightforward account of Guiteau's attack on Garfield, along with a description of what happened in their lives that brought them to that fatal point. Mixed in with the recitation of facts are Geary's amazing and detailed drawings and anecdotal asides that bring personality and a certain amount of sympathy to everyone involved.

In his delusions of grandeur, religious aspirations, and functional craziness, Guiteau is an extremely plausible and familiar type. As an archivist, I've read through correspondence to public figures (both historic and modern) that could have come straight from Guiteau's hand. He is mostly a pitiful figure, the only scariness about him comes from his actually acting on his idea of killing the president.

If you have any interest at all in Garfield, presidential assassinations, crazy dudes, or perfectly wonderful drawings, then The Fatal Bullet is the book for you.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930)

I've read a couple Dashiell Hammett books, and a really great collection of his short stories and novellas, and I always kind of thought that I'd already read Hammett's most famous book, The Maltese Falcon (1930). I mean, I owned it. It was right there on the shelf. And I remembered the story really well. When I suggested it as the next read for my book club (go DAFFODILS!), I thought I'd enjoy reading it again. And then once I started it, I realized I'd never read it before and that I was just remembering the extremely memorable 1941 film version. Finding an unread Hammett novel is always a nice surprise, so I wasn't disappointed with my memory at all...

The Maltese Falcon gives us the iconic Sam Spade, who laid the foundation for Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe and countless other fictional private investigators and detectives in books and on the screen. Spade is tough, smart, and has an instinct about people and situations that saves his neck over and over again. He is also rather irresistible to the ladies. When a mysterious and beautiful woman, Brigid O'Shaughnessy comes into his office with a suspicious sounding job, Spade's partner jumps on the chance to help her out. But then he ends up dead and Spade ends up being pulled into the orbit of O'Shaughnessy, the strange Joe Cairo (who is impossible to picture as anyone but Peter Lorre), and the wealthy and devious Mr. Gutman. All our characters are desperate to get their hands on an antique statue of a falcon from the isle of Malta -- each of them in it for themselves, and none of them with any regrets for the people who die along the way.

Hammett has an amazing sense of the bodies of his characters and how they move. His detailed descriptions of faces, skin, and the changing light in Spade's eyes, in combination with step-by-step descriptions of characters walking across the room, rolling a cigarette, or throwing a punch make this a book that you watch almost more than you read. This level of detail makes the book a little hard to get into at first (honestly a little harder for me than some of his other books), but the payoff in terms of the characters and the plot is completely worth it.

I'll save the rest for book club, but if you are interested in crime fiction, you really should read a bunch of Hammett, and The Maltese Falcon should be at the top of your list.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fatal Lady by Rae Foley (1964)

If you buy as many goofy mystery / sci-fi / suspense books as I do just because you like the cover, you learn to appreciate it when the books also turn out to be well written and entertaining. Fatal Lady by Rae Foley (1964) turns out to be just one of those books.

Rae Foley was the pseudonym of Elinor Denniston (1900-1978), who also published as Dennis Allan and Helen K. Maxwell. Rae Foley was her most prolific author-name, though, and this book is apparently part of a series of romance/mysteries featuring the sometimes-detective Mr. Potter.

In Fatal Lady, we come into the story after much of the action has taken place: Janet Grant is a wealthy socialite, and her playboy brother Cass married a beautiful woman with an unknown background named Eve. The sister, brother, wife, and father all live together in a fancy townhouse that is attached to the home of their neighbors and close friends, the Frederick's. When Mrs. Frederick confronts Janet and Cass with the news that Eve is having an affair with Mr. Frederick, a famous artist, Cass is enraged. He goes out to the art studio at the back of the property and comes back fifteen minutes later saying that he found Mr. Frederick strangled. Naturally everyone thinks he did the strangling, and it takes some fancy lawyering from Pete Russlin, the family lawyer (who is in love with Janet) to get Cass declared insane and set up in a posh asylum. As the novel begins, Janet is determined to set Cass free from the asylum, but when her plan succeeds, more people start dying and everyone becomes a suspect, including Janet herself.

The mystery is good, with a satisfying twist that can't quite be predicted before the end of the book. The writing is crisp and all the loose ends are nicely tied up by the end. There are some slightly goofy scenes of romance, but nothing too sappy. Definitely worth reading.

[I don't know if you can see it on the little picture of the cover on this book, but check out the larger version: Someone stamped a "30 c" on the woman's face, her dress, and on the curtain above her. Then in each case they put a line through the "c" (making it a cents sign) and changed the "0" to an "8". Apparently they wanted this book to cost exactly 38 cents, even if they had to totally fuck up the awesome cover for it. Honestly, I would be more irritated at this if it was just stamped "30 c" since I find the "8" kind of endearing. Also I think I paid a dollar for this... Finally, the back cover is pictured here.]

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Little Bee by Chris Cleave (2008)

A friend at work loaned me Chris Cleave's novel Little Bee (2008 -- published as The Other Hand in England), and I wish I could say I liked it more than I did.

To start with, there is the copy on the back of the book:

We don't want to tell you too much about this book!

It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it.

Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this:

It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific.

The story starts there, but the book doesn't.

And it's what happens afterward that is most important.

Once you have read it, you'll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.

Blech. First of all, I am not a fan of books (or movies, or TV shows, or anything) that try to enforce some kind of voluntary non-disclosure agreement for their readers, and it is a definite strike against your plot if you have to resort to this kind of "find out the secret!" sales technique. Secondly, the plot of the book doesn't rely on a twist or surprise or anything any more than any other book, so the warning is a little unnecessary.

The plot itself isn't bad at all -- the book is structured in alternating chapters narrated by Little Bee, a sixteen year old Nigerian refugee, and Sarah, a thirty-two year old British magazine editor with a journalist husband and a four year old son. The two women had a tragic and random encounter on a beach in Nigeria two years before, and during the course of the book their lives become even more intertwined.

The first few chapters from Little Bee are good. She has a unique voice and a sense of humor and lightness that is missing from the rest of the book. The Sarah chapters, on the other hand, are heavy-handed and feature some of the most horribly awkward and unbelievable dialogue I've ever read. And as soon as Little Bee enters Sarah's orbit, her chapters become leaden and clichéd as well.

Here's a little taste, complete with moral (from Sarah):

So, I realized -- life had finally broken through. How silly it looked now, my careful set of defenses against nature: my brazen magazine, my handsome husband, my Maginot Line of motherhood and affairs. The world, the real world, had found a way through. It had sat down on my sofa and it would not be denied any longer.

Now imagine reading 300 pages of that.

This book was a disappointment -- after a promising start with Little Bee's character, and what is ultimately an interesting and moving plot, the book falls into a whirlpool of predictable patterns, cardboard characters, and moralistic conclusions.

Saturday, November 06, 2010


Check out my crappy picture of the awesome button that my friend milk and cake made for me! It is one of my favorite buttons ever created. Yay!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior by Laura Kipnis (2010)

My latest LibraryThing Early Reviewers adventure was How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior by Laura Kipnis (2010). That's right: non-fiction! It doesn't happen all that often, but I do enjoy the occasional non-fiction read.

I really liked the premise of this book, which seeks to explore the nature of scandal in modern society: why we love to get on our high horses when a scandal comes out, how we can't get enough details on a high-profile scandal (the juicier the better), and why on earth these people do what they do when it is so obvious (in retrospect) that they would get caught and that we would heap scorn upon them.

Kipnis uses four case-studies in making her argument: Lisa Nowak (the be-diapered astronaut), Sol Wachtler (the respected New York judge who bizarrely blackmailed his socialite mistress), Linda Tripp (Monica Lewinsky's "friend" who taped their phone calls in order to expose Clinton), and James Frey (the author of A Million Little Pieces, the memoir that pissed Oprah off when it ended up being more of a novel).

The interest I had in re-reading (and in the case of Wachtler, reading for the first time) the details of these scandals pretty much proves Kipnis's point about the appeal of a downfall. In each case she was also able to broaden the focus and make connections between the individual media flurry and the larger social and cultural implications of our reactions to these events.

Where Kipnis lost me was in her somewhat rambling and dashed-off seeming introduction and conclusion, which lack the structure and focus of her chapters and include many irritating (to me) writing quirks. Actually, what irritated me about them was that they sounded like a blog post, which is an admittedly weird objection from a woman who writes on a blog, but I think books take a different writing style. [Plus no one is paying me for this, so you can suck it if it seems dashed off.]

Overall this is a somewhat slight but enjoyable look at contemporary culture that fairly judges its subjects and makes some intelligent comments on society. Totally worth a casual read.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

More Die of Heartbreak by Saul Bellow (1987)

I'd been meaning to read some Saul Bellow for quite some time, and picked this one up on the dollar shelf at a now-defunct used bookstore. This is later-period Bellow (his tenth novel) and not one of the ones he is famous for, so I probably could have picked a better one to start with. Still, even though it had a rough start, I really grew to enjoy this psychological bit of fiction.

Our rather neurotic narrator, Kenneth Trachtenberg, grew up in Paris, the product of two Midwestern expatriates. His father is widely known for being irresistible to the ladies and quite a womanizer, while Kenneth is a relative dud in that department. In order to both flee from his father's reputation and to be closer to his beloved uncle, Kenneth takes a job as a Russian Literature professor in the Midwestern town where his mother's family is from (unnamed in the book, but I'm guessing Detroit). His uncle, Benn Crader, is a distinguished botanist who has an uncanny, almost psychic relationship with plants. Kenneth's aims are a little obscure (although he spends a claustrophobic hundred pages or so explaining them), but have something to do with making his life a turning point and translating Benn's understanding of plants into an understanding of humans: "As earlier stated, unless you made your life a turning point, there was no reason for existing. Only you didn't make, you found the turning point that was the crying need (unconscious, of course, as the most crying needs are) of humankind."

Once you get a little further into the book, the story expands into Benn's sudden marriage to Matilda, a beautiful woman with very wealthy parents who have manipulative plans for Benn that involve his estranged and very rich (and very corrupt and very old) uncle. Kenneth puts himself in the role of Benn's protector while simultaneously pining over the mother of his child (who left him for a snowmobile salesman in Seattle) and starting a relationship with a doting former student.

This book definitely has the same kind of east-coast, masculine, sex-obsessed vibe as Philip Roth, but while that can sometimes be a little trying, it isn't necessarily a bad thing. Bellow is often very funny, and the pay off in the narrative for his characters' obsessive traits makes it all worthwhile.

A few more quotes that I couldn't resist:

"Also, it would be against my rule of truthfulness to conceal the fact that I am fond of preposterous people. And what stunning offers you get from the insane!"

"I kept seeing Bethe's mask face, like human features painted on the sole of somebody's foot, and Teller like the atomic Moses coming down from Sinai with the Commandments on hydrogen tablets."

"Once you get into the erotic life, modern style, you are accelerated till your minutest particles fly apart."

[Also, I couldn't find a big enough version of the cover of this book that I own (and I was too lazy to scan it), but it really couldn't look more like a Danielle Steele cover and was apparently published in a series of bright romantic colors -- mine is a lovely turquoise.]

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Singing Detective

Although I consider myself more of a movie person, there are a lot of nice things out there in TV Land. We just finished watching The Wire, recently started The Sopranos, and have found ourselves deep in lots of other series and miniseries. Rarely, however, does a TV show really eat at me the way a movie or a book, can. I found a big exception to that rule in the 1986 British mini-series The Singing Detective, which is one of the best things ever created for TV ever.

In just six episodes, Dennis Potter (the writer), Jon Amiel (the director), and Michael Gambon (the star) weave together an amazingly complicated and moving story. Philip Marlowe, a writer, is hospitalized with a debilitating skin condition. From his bed he brings together memories of his boyhood, the plot of his detective novel, the perceived machinations of his ex-wife, and some truly wonderful musical numbers. You really must watch it.

This is definitely in my top three favorite television productions (right up there with Twin Peaks and Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz). If you have NetFlix, I suggest you order it right now. Or if you see me, let me know if you want to borrow it. We watched this months ago, and I still think of it all the time.

There are lots of clips from The Singing Detective on YouTube, but it is hard to find one that makes sense on its own or that doesn't give too much away out of context. But, for a taste of what I'm talking about, try this out:

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Borden Tragedy: A Memoir of the Infamous Double Murder at Fall River, Mass., 1892 by Rick Geary (1997)

Oh hey, look! Another graphic novel! That a friend lent to me (thanks, Joolie)! This one, however, is not a melancholy coming of age memoir. Instead, it is The Borden Tragedy by Rick Geary (1997), part of Geary's Treasury of Victorian Murder that I would truly like to explore further.

Although the well-known story of Lizzie Borden and the murders by axe of her father and step-mother in their home in 1892 are also rather disturbing, I found this book to be an uplifting change after reading Stitches. The bold drawings, the straightforward, procedural text, and the direct physical tragedy were a nice escape from the beautiful but sad look at human nature in Small's story.

I particularly enjoyed the (somewhat dated but still valid) comparison between Lizzie Borden and OJ Simpson on the back of this book: both were wealthy defendants, accused of killing a man and woman, with no motive and no other likely killer. And yet, both of them were acquitted, the murders never solved, and they were generally assumed to have gotten away with it.

Of particular note are Geary's attention to the homes, rooms, and furniture in his story. All the backgrounds are detailed without being overdone and add just the right amount of realism to the sordid tale.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Stitches: A Memoir by David Small (2009)

Continuing my trend of reading graphic memoirs that have been loaned to me by friends, I just finished David Small's Stitches: A Memoir (2009), which was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.

This book is heartbreaking, but the whole time I was reading it I kept looking back at the author's picture, showing a happy looking man in his mid-sixties, and reminding myself that he was nominated for a National Book Award, so obviously things turned out relatively okay.

Small was sickly as a child, and had lots of problems with his sinuses. His dad, a radiologist, gave him radiation treatments, which were thought to be helpful at the time. Several years later, the family noticed a growth on the side of Small's neck. They thought it was just a cyst and waited a few more years, when he was fourteen, to have it removed. During that surgery, the doctors realized that the growth was cancerous and ended up removing one of Small's vocal chords, leaving him voiceless and scarred when he woke up. Small's family was a family of silences, outbursts, and grudges and no one told him that he had had cancer. And the more you learn about the family, Small's cancer is just a small piece in the larger scheme of illness, betrayal, and cruelty.

The drawings are amazing -- especially the postures, the faces, and the washed out backgrounds. The perfect illustration for this book of memories, pain, and ultimately, escape.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

World's Fair by E. L. Doctorow (1985)

My next dip into Harold Bloom's western canon list is World's Fair by E. L. Doctorow (1985). This is the first Doctorow I've read (although I hear that Ragtime and Billy Bathgate are very good), and I'd love to read more.

World's Fair is a story of Edgar, a nine-year old boy growing up in the Bronx in the late 1930s with his music-salesman father, his often-frustrated mother, and his much older brother. The strengths of World's Fair aren't in breathtaking action sequences or tightly structured plot twists -- instead, the book slowly creates a fully experienced time and place for the reader in a way that few historically-set books can do. Doctorow's own life closely mirrors that of Edgar, including a coveted trip to the World's Fair, so it is understandable that the details of the neighborhood, family, and house are so vivid and moving.

The book is written in first person, from Edgar's perspective (with occasional brief chapters from other relatives), but the voice of the narrator masterfully moves between the emotions and naivety of a young boy and the poetry and philosophy of a grown man remembering his past. Even more than the detailed descriptions, this narrative voice is the heart of the book.

[also, I haven't watched the whole thing, but if you are interested in the 1939 World's Fair (or Westinghouse, or little boys wearing ties, or parental guilt trips -- skip to about 8:30 for the fair), this is probably worth a look.]


Just remembered that I had marked a particularly nice passage to quote:

Death was on my mind, I thought about it, brooded about it, and studied its representations. I had an old book of nursery rhymes that I hadn't looked at in a while. The letters were large, the drawings tinted in pale orange and pale green. The children and other beings in nursery rhymes were peculiar, ethereal, they inhabited nations, worlds, with which I was not familiar. Their characters were a source of uneasy imaginings. Little Miss Muffet: I would not call any girl of my acquaintance Miss anything; this one was so prissy and girlgood as to be insufferable, fully deserving her fate. I did not like Humpty Dumpty, who lacked all manly definition and was so irrevocably fragile. Georgie Porgie, Jack Horner, Jack and Jill, all seemed to me unnatural abstractions of child existence; there was some menacing propaganda latent in their circumstances but I couldn't quite work out what it was. It was a strange planet they lived on, some place of enormous fearful loneliness and punishment. Or it was as if they were dead but continued to be alive. Whatever happened to them kept happening over and over, good or bad, and I perceived a true moral in this repetition of fate, this recurring inevitable conclusion to the flaws in their beings. They suffered humiliation, damage, and shame, all forms of death or the feeling of death. They were like my dreams -- birds flew out of pies, children ran with kings and queens, sheep, those most docile and slow-moving of animals, ran away, whereas the sheep in the Farm exhibit in Claremont Park in the spring didn't even move when you touched them. No human, animal or egg acted quite right in these stories. My final unalterable judgment was that nursery rhymes were for babies and I would not suffer hearing them again.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Blankets by Craig Thompson (2003)

I had planned to put it a bit further down in my pile, but the copy of Blankets by Craig Thompson (2003) that the always-amazing St. Murse lent me was calling my name, and I couldn't resist. To be honest, I was also influenced by the fact that this book is as giant as Good-bye, Chunky Rice is slender, and it was about to topple over my very precarious "to-read" pile.

Blankets is a coming-of-age memoir about Thompson growing up in rural Wisconsin with his brother and parents, being teased at school for being skinny and poor, navigating the Evangelical Christianity of his family, and falling in love for the first time at a winter bible camp. The story moves back and forth between childhood and adolescence, focusing much of its time on a pivotal two-week visit to Michigan to stay with the family of Raina, the girl he met in bible camp.

The narrative in Blankets is much more concrete than Good-bye, Chunky Rice, but the feelings of necessary separation, of growth, and of fond sadness are the same. So are Thompson's knack for humorous details, vulnerable revelations, and an emotional (but not manipulative) connection with his readers.

Thompson also draws a Midwestern meathead bully better than anyone else on earth.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor (2002)

The always-amazing Choo recently lent me a copy of William Trevor's tragic novel The Story of Lucy Gault (2002). I've never read anything by Trevor before this, but he is a well-respected and prolific Irish author and playwright, and I would imagine that his age and experiences make him well qualified to pen such a classically told exploration of morality.

The Story of Lucy Gault begins in Ireland in 1921. Captain Gault comes from a prominent Protestant Irish family, and he and his English wife have a young daughter named Lucy. Being Protestant, married to an Englishwoman, and a former member of the British army puts Gault on the wrong side of the Irish War of Independence, and when three young men from a nearby village poison his dogs and attempt to burn down his house, Captain Gault accidentally shoots one of them in the shoulder as he tries to scare them away. A fear of vengeance leads the Gault's to plan a move to England, and while the household prepares for retreat, little Lucy gets more and more frustrated and angry at the idea of having to leave the beautiful country home that she loves.

Shortly before they are to depart for England, Lucy makes a last bid to stay in Ireland by packing up some food and clothes and running away through the forest to the home of a recently-let-go chamber maid. She figures that her parents will take her seriously and change their minds about moving if she does something drastic. Lucy trips and hurts her ankle in the woods and can't make it to town or back to her house. Her dad then finds some of her clothes washed up on the shore (she left them there after swimming by herself -- something she wasn't supposed to do), and when she doesn't return for days, her parents, the servants, and the townspeople all believe she drowned in the ocean. Her parents, distraught with grief, leave as planned -- but instead of going to England, they travel blindly around the continent and cut off all contact with Ireland. When Lucy is found by Henry, the groundskeeper, a few days after their departure, there is no way to contact her parents to let them know she is okay.

From this one action, a young child playing at running away, the lives of all our characters are completely broken, and the hurt keeps on coming. And just when you think you can't take any more of it, life goes on. Characters age, find routines, avoid their pain, and keep their vigils for past mistakes. While there are some reunions, there are still more heartbreaks before the end of the book, and Trevor has a perfect sense of when to twist his knife and when to give his characters some breathing room.

This novel is almost theological in its insistence on the ability of humans to transcend tragedy and find beauty and comfort in the natural world and the routine of the everyday. The dialogue is sometimes a little stiff, but Trevor's old-fashioned writing style works perfectly with this heartbreaking story. Not a barrel of laughs, but if you appreciate the calm that comes after a nicely structured tragedy, this is the book for you.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Pursuit of the Screamer by Ansen Dibell (1978)

I bought a copy of Pursuit of the Screamer by Ansen Dibell (1978) at a used bookstore on vacation in Fort Collins this summer, partly because it was only a dollar, and mostly because of its very entertaining cover. I'm still kind of mortified / fascinated by the odd crotch drapery of the woman's outfit. Not particularly comfy-looking...

When I started reading this book, I suspected that the author was a woman, mostly because the name Ansen Dibell couldn't possibly sound more like a pseudonym, and the reason many genre authors use pseudonyms is that they are actually women. In Dibell's case, she was not only a woman, but also a professor of English literature, who probably didn't want her CV filled up with books featuring creative crotch draping on the cover.

Pursuit of the Screamer gracefully tells a pretty complicated story of a distant planet made up of a native people (the Valde -- warriors, able to read minds and communicate telepathically, very empathetic to the environment, mostly women), a colonizing group of humans (the Bremneri -- mostly merchants in strict feudal settlements run by women and guarded by Valde), and a technologically advanced and now Deathless race called the Teks (as well as some other sub-groups that have split off and formed over the last several thousand years). Jannus, a young Bremneri man, falls in love with Poli, a Valde woman at the end of her 10 year military service guarding his town. He also finds himself responsible for Lur, a Deathless Tek who is first in the body of a young boy, and later in the body of a giant cat (that is when the cover starts making a little more sense).

When the Teks ruled the planet, they discovered a way to create a recording of all their memories and experiences that could be stored away in a vault and implanted in a new living body at the time of their death. This essentially gave them immortality and took away the finality of death. Suicide became an artistic statement. People were murdered just to prove a point. Death could even be a simple way of traveling since you could kill your body in one location and then be reborn in a new body in a distant keep. A series of circumstances and a whole lot of time eventually led to a breakdown in the system and although Teks were still dying and being reborn, they were locked into their own territory and forced to fight over water and kill each other for food, only to be reborn again in a sick Groundhog's Day of an eternal life. Talk about comeuppance for grasping at immortality...

The intricate history of the planet and the motives of the main characters are more than a little too complicated to get into in the course of this review, but eventually Jannus, Poli and Lur, along with their capable partner Elda, find themselves responsible for bringing a welcomed death to the deathless and pushing the planet away from an inevitable war.

Dibell nicely balances the big social and political movements of this world with an intimate story of the love between Jannus and Poli. This is a well written and engaging book with an entertaining (although misleading and ultimately unfortunate) cover. I'd definitely like to read the rest of the series.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Good-bye, Chunky Rice by Craig Thompson (1999)

The always-excellent St. Murse recently loaned me two graphic novels by Craig Thompson. I figured I would read them in chronological order, which put the slim volume Good-bye, Chunky Rice (1999) in my hands.

I'm kind of a dilettante about it, but I really enjoy reading graphic novels when they find their way to me. Rarely, however, do I find that they really move me in the way that a novel moves me. Part of that is probably because I read them too fast, but I slowed down and took my time with Good-bye, Chunky Rice -- actually I read the whole thing twice -- and every page got right to me, half the time I couldn't stop giggling, and twice it made me cry.

This is the story of Chunky Rice, a turtle who decides he needs to leave his hometown, and his best lady friend, a sweet deer mouse, for unknown somethings far away. His roommate at a boarding house, gets him passage on his brother's boat. Chunky, the captain, a pair of Siamese twins, and a busty cook set off on their ocean voyage.

Thompson manages to make a book about a turtle, a mouse, abandonment, disappointment, sorrow, and goodbyes into a funny, enjoyable, and emotionally moving story that feels filled with characters from the reader's own life.

I can't wait to read Blankets...

Doot doot!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

No Place for Heroes by Laura Restrepo (2009)

I got a copy of No Place for Heroes by Laura Restrepo (2009, English translation 2010) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program awhile ago, but I had put off reading it because the description on the back was so dumb sounding. I figured the time had come for me to take my hits and, surprisingly, the book was pretty great!

Lorenza is a Columbian woman who joined the socialist party in Madrid as a young woman and then went to Buenos Aires to fight in the underground against the dictatorship in the late 1970s. She meets and moves in with a local leader of the movement, Ramón, and the two of them have a son, Mateo. When Mateo is a few years old, and after several close calls with the police, Lorenza and Ramón move to Columbia and cut off their ties with the movement. Lorenza throws herself into her work as a journalist, but Ramón is increasingly depressed and the two end up separating. When Ramón kidnaps Mateo in order to regain Lorenza's love and their former relationship, Lorenza is willing to sacrifice anything to get her son back.

Fast forwarding a dozen years or so, Lorenza and a teenage Mateo are back in Bueons Aires because Mateo wants to meet his father, a man he hasn't seen since he was three years old and hardly remembers. The city, now released from the dictatorship, brings back memories of her political youth and Lorenza spends hours telling Mateo stories of his father and their time together in the movement. Mateo, in typical teenager fashion, interrupts constantly, sometimes hungering for more stories of his father and other times getting frustrated with his mother and shutting her out. They find Ramón's number in the phone book, but Mateo can't get the courage up to call it. As they search for clues to Ramón's past, and Mateo tries to figure out why his father has never tried to look for him, Lorenza leads us back through the death of her father, she and Ramón's early life together, the excitement and terror of life under the dictatorship, and Mateo's kidnapping.

This is a nicely structured and well-written novel that managed to cover motherhood, teenagerness, social struggle, and past loves equally well. The descriptions of Buenos Aires are lovingly done without being oppressive, and it is no wonder that Restrepo can conjure these feelings and descriptions since much of Lorenza's history comes from Restrepo's own life. Definitely worth a read, especially if you are a fan of Latin American literature. Just don't judge this one by the back cover...

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2005)

For a book lover, I really am remarkably out of touch with what is going on in the book world. I almost never go into a bookstore that sells new books, most of my weird reading list (with the exception of my book club and my western canon project) comes from garage sales, thrift stores, or things that my nice friends lend me, and I don't read the New York Times Book Review or often even know if one of my favorite authors has come out with a new book. So, when I saw this copy of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova was a dollar at the library book sale, I decided to go for it. I'm an archivist, so I like historians, and I also like really long books and am not averse to small doses of vampirism. Little did I know (until, actually, a minute ago when I skimmed this insanely comprehensive Wikipedia article) that the rights to Kostova's debut novel earned her a $2 million paycheck, and that, thanks to a hefty advertising budget, this was the first debut novel to hit the New York Times bestsellers list in its first week of publication. And all thanks to a certain runaway bestseller called The Da Vinci Code that got publishers all hot about historical mystery/adventure books.

I haven't read The Da Vinci Code, but from what I've read about it, Kostova's novel has to be the better written of the two. This 650 page novel is told through a series of letters, diaries, remembered stories, folk songs, historical manuscripts, and journal articles. Our narrator, a middle-aged historian in the present day, pieces together the story of her teenage years in the mid-1970s, her father's grad school days in the 1950s, and her father's adviser's youthful research in the 1930s. All three characters become enmeshed in a never-ending cycle of obsessive research on Vlad Ţepeş aka Vlad the Impaler aka the historical Dracula, and in particular a desire to find the location of his grave. As historians, they naturally don't believe in superstitious notions like vampires, but after finding a very old bound volume containing nothing but blank pages with a woodcut of a dragon and the word Drakula in the center, their researcher brains take over. And they make rapid progress, quickly setting aside their real research projects, chasing down one lead after another, and traveling to distant countries to find another clue to the whereabouts of Dracula. And then: things start getting weird. They see an odd looking broad shouldered man following them. Their pets and friends start dying. People with bite marks on the side of their necks tell them that they should stop their research. And ultimately they are personally threatened by the big D. himself.

One by one our historians take the hint and stop researching Dracula. And one by one the next person in the chain discovers the book and picks up the research.

I was expecting to do a lot of cringing whenever the characters went to a library or an archives, because usually historical research in fictional books or movies is not portrayed very realistically. Kostova, on the other hand, gives us a book where historical research looks pretty familiar: no characters steal books or manuscripts from a repository; rare documents are treated with respect; the research takes a very very very long time, nothing is all in one repository, and plenty of documents just never made it into a collection at all. Big thumbs up on her research knowledge!

In the book the characters do a lot of traveling: from Oxford to Harvard, all around Eastern Europe, to France, Istanbul, Hungary, Bulgaria. The first 100 pages or so read more like a travel guide than a novel, and while it is clear that Kostova has really been to the places mentioned in the book, her descriptions of the sights and sounds of Europe are a little overblown and take away from the drive of the narrative. Once she gets going, however, the plot picks up and the last 100 pages are very exciting and bring us to a satisfying conclusion.

This isn't the best thing I've ever read (there is not a lot of variety in the characters' voices, it could use some tightening up, and sometimes her pacing is off), but is a fun read and the historical look at Vlad the Impaler, the fall of Byzantium, and the rise of the Ottoman empire is almost more exciting than the actual vampires. And there are some of those, including a character referred to as the "evil librarian."

If you want lots of sexy vampire action, this book is probably not for you, but if you have a little patience and a love for historiography, then it don't let its bestselling nature scare you away.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel (2006)

The always amazing A. recently lent me her copy of Alison Bechdel's graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), and I'm so so glad she did, because this is one I've been wanting to read for awhile. Bechdel is the author of the "Dykes to Watch Out For" comic strip, which is also excellent, and which really made me want to read this more personal work.

Fun Home is a memoir about Bechdel's childhood, coming of age, and her relationship with her father. Bechdel's coming out to her family in college was immediately followed by the news that her mother was leaving her father, and that her father was gay. A few weeks after that, at the age of 44, her father was dead after stepping in front of a bread truck while doing yard work. The evidence is inconclusive, but Bechdel believes that her father committed suicide and Fun Home, in part, looks back over her father's life and their time together and tries to come to terms with their past and his death.

Bechdel reveals this very personal story with a compelling sense of self-awareness and perspective. Events are presented and then revisited, background details highlight the difference between what the child and adult Bechdel see, and visuals of everyday scenes underlie the revealing and sometimes upsetting text.

Overall Fun Home really is a tragicomic -- a memoir filled with the comedy of adolescence and childhood memory, but washed over by the tragedy of her father's death. As soon as I finished it, I wanted to read the whole thing again and soak up more of the detailed drawings (which, incidentally, is exactly what A. said to me when she finished it). You should probably read this one.

[for a sense of Bechdel's amazing art work, check out the Google Books version.]

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Rough Guide to Barcelona by Jules Brown (2009)

Aside from a college trip to Mexico, I've never been out of the country, but international travel is something that I aspire to and I take a strange pleasure in reading about cities I've never been to, looking through street maps, and reading about hotels and restaurants and odd little neighborhoods. One city I could see myself exploring is Barcelona, so I got myself a used copy of The Rough Guide to Barcelona by Jules Brown (2009). I ordered it off Amazon and actually ended up with a UK version of the book that was withdrawn from a library in Edinburgh -- I'm not sure what it means when your travel guide has actually done more travel than you have.

Barcelona has several qualities that are important to me: It is on a coast; it has an interesting and long history; I can speak one of the languages (Spanish, not Catalan); cool architecture; good food. If I were to go, I think I'd like to spend three or four days in the city just wandering around and people watching and then do some side trips to cool things in the region.

Some things I would definitely want to see and do:

1. The Sagrada Familia and other Gaudí creations

2. Montjuïc (and I would naturally want to ride the funicular up there.)

3. Cable car across the harbor.

4. Old streets.

5. Beach stuff.

6. Exciting and big food markets.

And for some out of town excursions:

1. Montserrat

2. Girona

3. The Dalí museum in Figures

The Rough Guide series is a solid one, and although I haven't used this guide in the field, it seems to have plenty of useful information and easy to understand maps. Not a lot of pictures, but Google Image Search makes up for that.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Tinkers by Paul Harding (2009)

George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.

The latest selection for my book club (go DAFFODILS!) was Paul Harding's debut novel (and recent Pulitzer Prize winner) Tinkers (2009). The action of this book is the memories and thoughts of clock-repairer George Crosby as he lies, an old man, on his death bed and thinks back on his childhood in Maine and his epileptic father, Howard. The narrative is loose and the plot dreamlike, with point of view bouncing between George, Howard, and others, sometimes in the third person, and sometimes in the first. The language is often poetic with multiple clauses strung together, the punctuation mimicking the jumbled thoughts of a dying man. This book is literary, but not overly so, and its short length, beautiful language, and well-developed characters (who really come to life, even within the non-linear plot) should keep most readers engaged. Me: I loved it.

As might be expected, this poetic and not-action-packed slim novel was not gulped up by the big publishing houses when they saw it, and ended up being published by a small independent press. The story of how the book was written, published, found its audience and eventually won the Pulitzer is a great one, and should be required reading for all "unmarketable" artists.

And now, because the language in the book is too lovely to leave on the page, and because this is my blog and I can do what I want, please indulge me in another quotation:

He thought, buy the pendant, sneak it into your hand from the folds of your dress and let the low light of the fire lap at it late at night as you wait for the roof to give out or your will to snap and the ice to be too thick to chop through with the ax as you stand in your husband's boots on the frozen lake at midnight, the dry hack of the blade on ice so tiny under the wheeling and frozen stars, the soundproof lid of heaven, that your husband would never stir from his sleep in the cabin across the ice, would never hear and come running, half-frozen, in only his union suit, to save you from chopping a hole in the ice and sliding into it as if it were a blue vein, sliding down into the black, silty bottom of the lake, where you would see nothing, would perhaps feel only the stir of some somnolent fish in the murk as the plunge of you in your wool dress and the big boots disturbed it from its sluggish winter dreams of ancient seas. Maybe you would not even feel that, as you struggled in clothes that felt like cooling tar, and as you slowed calmed, even, and opened your eyes and looked for a pulse of silver, an imbrication of scales, and as you closed your eyes again and felt their lids turn to slippery, ichthyic skin, the blood behind them suddenly cold, and as you found yourself not caring, wanting, finally, to rest, finally wanting nothing more than the sudden, new, simple hum threading between your eyes. The ice is far too thick to chop through. You will never do it. You could never do it. So buy the gold, warm it with your skin, slip it onto your lap when you are sitting by the fire and all you will otherwise have to look at is your splintery husband gumming chew or the craquelure of your own chapped hands.

"An imbrication of scales" = awesome.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Master of Murder by Christopher Pike (1992)

You may have heard of a certain bestselling author of young adult thrillers who goes by the name of Christopher Pike. That is, of course, a pseudonym, and little is known about Pike who keeps his private life very private and never does publicity or publishes author photos.

This might remind you of a character in Pike's 1992 novel Master of Murder: Marvin Summer is a 17-year-old high school student. But he is also the author of the Mack Slate novels -- a bestselling series of young adult thrillers which he writes under a pseudonym -- and no one in his town, not even his parents, suspects a thing. The reason he is still in high school and not living the high life with his millions of dollars is that both his parents are alcoholics and he is afraid that his dad will take all his money if he finds out how rich he is before his 18th birthday. This, of course, makes perfect sense.

Marvin may be a successful author and rich young man, but he has not been lucky in love. His relationship with the girl of his dreams, Shelly, was cut short when another boy she was seeing, Harry was found dead in the lake outside of town a year ago. Everyone says he committed suicide, but Shelly is sure he was murdered, and she wants Marvin to find out who did it. Meanwhile, Marvin has gotten a series of letters in his PO Box from someone who knows who he is, and that are postmarked from his hometown (this is not really a surprise since his fan mail is forwarded to "Mack Slate" at that address since his agent doesn't know his real name).

There are some definite rocky patches in this one, and the reader has to suspend quite a bit of disbelief, but overall the book is a fun read, and Pike seems to be having fun writing about writing. In fact, he even seems to understand his own overemphasis on descriptions of his character's hair:

Shelly had hair and she had skin -- both lovely. (p.3)

The book also features a character named Triad, which is possibly the best high school football jock name I have ever heard.

[And if you don't want to read the book, but want all the plot details, check out the nice summary here.]

Sunday, August 29, 2010

London Fields by Martin Amis (1989)

The black cab will move away, unrecallably and for ever, its driver paid, and handsomely tipped, by the murderee. She will walk down the dead-end street. The heavy car will be waiting; its lights will come on as it lumbers towards her. It will stop, and idle, as the passenger door swings open.

His face will be barred in darkness, but she will see shattered glass on the passenger seat and the car-tool ready on his lap.

'Get in.'

She will lean forward, '
You,' she will say, in intense recognition: 'Always you.'


And in she'll climb...

The novel London Fields by Martin Amis (1989) takes place in a crowded and distracted London in 1999. And as the world hurls towards the uncertainty and potential Crisis of the Millennium, our four characters hurl toward their inevitable conclusion. We have Nicola Six, the sexually controlling femme fatale and murderee who has foretold her own death; Keith Talent, the professional cheat, verile womanizer, olympic drinker, and aspiring darts champion; Guy Clinch, the wealthy but personally and sexually dissatisfied new father whose son, Marmaduke, is a truly amazing physical terror; and our narrator, Samson Young, a failed non-fiction writer, dying of a terminal disease, who comes across the triangle of Nicola, Keith and Guy and decides to document their drama and turn it into a best-selling novel.

The book abounds with black humor (the attacks of Marmaduke, the epic and excruciating hard-on of Guy, the charmed squalor of Keith) and post-modern meta-narratives on the act of writing (every chapter "written" by Samson is followed by a short section in Samson's voice commenting on his process of gathering information and putting it into his novel). Dark comedy and post-modernism can so easily fall into the trap of a winky and substanceless exchange between the reader and writer, but Amis counters that with his enticingly rich descriptions and gradual escalation of the panic and loss of control of his narrator and cast of characters.

This is a wonderfully strong and engrossing novel that is both fun to read, literary, and impossible to stop thinking about when you are done.

Speaking of enticingly rich descriptions, here are a couple of my favorites:

Keith's crowning glory, his hair, was thick and full-bodied; but it always had the look of being recently washed, imperfectly rinsed, and then, still slick with cheap shampoo, slow-dried in a huddled pub -- the thermals of the booze, the sallowing fagsmoke.

Here was a blonde to whom everything that could happen to a blonde had gone ahead and happened.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Company of Heaven: Stories from haiti by Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell (2010)

The always intriguing LibraryThing Early Reviewers program recently sent me a copy of Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell's short story collection The Company of Heaven: Stories from Haiti (October 2010).

Besides writing short stories, Phipps-Kettlewell is a visual artist and poet (you can see some examples of her work on her web site), and her work in these other artistic mediums is reflected in her often lyrical storytelling and economical description. While most of the stories stand alone, there is a subtle interlocking of characters and events that strings through the collection. Her narrative criss-crosses her native country of Haiti, touching on the black and the white, the rich and the poor, the old and the young. All the stories were interesting and readable, and some (like "Dogs," "River Valley Rooms," and "At the Gate") were just about perfect. Definitely worth a look.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Would-Be Gentleman by Molière (1670)

My next stop on the non-stop literature train that is Harold Bloom's Western Canon list is the French play "The Would-Be Gentleman" by Molière (1670).

Molière is known as one of the great masters of comedy and "The Would-Be Gentleman" is no exception. Here Molière pokes fun at the greatly expanding French middle-class, typified by Monsieur Jourdain, a nouveau riche merchant who has plenty of money to spend on learning how to be a "person of quality." To this end he hires music instructors, dancing instructors, and fencing instructors who all gladly take his money and put up with his gauche opinions while waiting for a commission from a real noble.

Jourdain has a very practical and witty wife, and a lovely daughter, Lucile, who is in love with Cléonte. Madame Jourdain would be very happy for her daughter to marry Cléonte, but her husband is bound and determined for his daughter to marry a nobleman. Through a series of disguises, and leaning heavily on the suggestibility of Monsieur Jourdain, the romance is brought to a suitable ending for a comedy.

I really enjoyed this play -- it is predictable, but in just the way you want a good comedy to be, and many of the jokes and gags are just as funny now as they were over 300 years ago. All plays are meant to be performed, of course, and not just read, and since this play also includes several music/dance numbers, it perhaps loses even more than most by being read on the page instead of watched on the screen. Still, Molière's sense of fun and the comedy of his characters comes through in this archetypal French comedy.

Luckily for me, I got my copy of "The Would-Be Gentleman" in a collection of Molière's plays that includes four other plays from Bloom's canon list, and which I have bookmarked to read later. Since there were just two plays in this collection that Bloom overlooked, I read them this time around.

The first: "The Doctor In Spite of Himself" (1666) is a very funny story of a poor man who gets mad at his wife and hits her (that's not the funny part) -- she gets her revenge by telling two men who are in search of a doctor to cure their rich master's daughter that her husband is the greatest doctor of all time, but he has the eccentricity of denying that he is a doctor unless you beat him senseless. After you do that, he will agree he is a doctor and cure your patient. As you might imagine, everything eventually works out, and along the way is a play that is so funny I can't figure out why it didn't make the big W.C. list.

The second is "The Mischievous Machinations of Scapin" (1671) which focuses on the entertainingly conniving valet Scapin who gets himself and his masters into plenty of trouble, but always manages to get them back out again. Some really nice gags in this one, which also features the familiar doomed love affairs that end up working out just perfectly.

Friday, August 06, 2010


Hey jerks, this is my 1000th post! What have I been doing for the past five and a half years (since February 16, 2005), you might ask? Well, lately I've been writing a lot about books, of course. I've also explored the intimate world of my secret boyfriends. And there was that wonderful spring that was dominated by The Serious Debate (which is by far the most popular post on this blog).

Thanks for stopping by for the first 1000 posts, and maybe over the next five years or so I will grace you with 1000 more.


Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow (2010)

The always lovely choo thrust this book upon me a few months ago, and it took quite some time to work its way up to the top of my ever-expanding pile. Once it did, though, I zoomed through it in a day and a half and enjoyed every second of it.

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (2010) by Heidi W. Durrow is a coming-of-age story, a novel about race, a psychological study, and an engaging read. The book tells the story of Rachel, the daughter of a Danish woman and an African-American military man who has mostly grown up overseas on military bases. When she alone survives a family tragedy, she is sent off to live with her father's mother and sister in Portland. Rachel tries to put on a happy face while inside she struggles with her racial identity and her lost family.

The book alternates between the viewpoints of Rachel, the diaries of her late mother, her mom's boss and friend, her father, and a boy from Chicago who witnessed her family's last moments. While the story seems like it could be a heavy-handed or simplistic look at race and growing up, Durrow's straightforward (and yet sometimes poetic) prose, gradual revelations about the family secrets, and her perfect control of the plot keep things from getting too easy or clichéd. A great book for anyone, and one that I think would particularly resonate with teenagers.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Banana + Lime = Jam??

Do you like bananas? Do you like limes? Do you think you could even figure out what Banana-Lime Jam would taste like?

Lucky for you I took the plunge and made this recipe from Cooking Light (very nicely described and photographed on the Noble Pig blog). It was weird. But good! But also weird. I honestly can't describe it entirely, although it is more tart than I thought it would be, and the consistency is extremely satisfying.

To make myself seem even more awesome, I made buttermilk biscuits for the first time in my life as a vehicle for some of the jam. Both making biscuits and making jam were way easier than I thought they would be. Is there a life lesson in there somewhere?

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Happy Endings edited by Diana Schutz (2002)

Dr. M bought this Dark Horse comics anthology [Happy Endings edited by Diana Schutz (2002)] when we were on vacation in Fort Collins, at the same comics shop he would sometimes get to go to as a kid. From the same grumpy comic book guy. With the same awesome grumpy cat.

The anthology, like most anthologies, is pleasant enough, although not particularly mind-blowing. Schutz brought together sixteen established comic artists and had them each produce a short piece on the theme "Happy Endings." Some interpreted that quite literally, some poked fun at the idea, but they all tackled it creatively and true to their own style. I liked the entries by Bernie Mireault, Craig Thompson, Farel Dalrymple and Harvey Pekar the best -- especially the Craig Thompson piece, which was by far the strongest in the book.

Which reminds me, does anyone have a copy of Blankets I could borrow? I'd really like to get more Craig Thompson into my life...

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen (2009)

As I've probably mentioned before, I've loved Louisa May Alcott ever since I read Little Women as a child and then found out that Alcott and I shared the same birthday. When I picked her as the topic for an elementary school report I also learned that she was tall and thin, had only sisters, and that she loved to read. And now that I've read this well written biography by Harriet Reisen, I've also learned that, like me, Alcott shared a birthday with one of her relatives (in her case, her father; in my case, my sister) and that she loved to read (and made quite a bit of money writing) pulpy fiction serials for popular magazines.

Okay, the similarities between myself and Louisa May Alcott pretty much end there: my dad is sometimes philosophical, but he is a good provider and way more down to earth than Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott; I only lived in three houses growing up -- Alcott moved 30 times before she was in her mid-twenties; I'm no fiction writer; and my personality tends to be pretty even keeled and not as frenetic as Louisa May Alcott's. Still, I like to think we would be good friends if she hadn't passed away back in 1888.

Reisen's biography is an extremely readable exploration of Louisa May Alcott's life, starting with her parents' childhoods and ending with her death (which, incidentally, was only two days after the death of her father). While the author is closely focused on the life of Alcott, her family was at the center of many important aspects of 19th century America (abolition, Transcendentalism, the Civil War, women's suffrage) that the reader can't help but get a healthy dose of American (and Bostonian) history.

It is well known that Alcott based her best-selling novel, Little Women on her own family, and in fact much of Alcott's fiction was drawn from her real life experiences. And while all the characters and many of the events in Little Women have their parallels in reality, Louisa May Alcott's childhood was much rougher than the book allows. Having a Transcendentalist father meant that Alcott grew up with Emerson and Thoreau as neighbors and friends, but her father's writing was never successful, and for much of his life he was not much respected outside of his circle of friends. He never made money at his philosophical and educational work, and the Alcott family struggled to make ends meet through loans from friends and family (that were never paid back), and by moving frequently to escape their debts. Bronson Alcott's philosophies of diet (nothing but bread, water and apples) and cleanliness (cold shower outdoors) didn't make life any more comfortable for his wife and four daughters. And yet, the family was very close, and Louisa May Alcott was ultimately able to support both her parents and her sisters through her writing.

Lucky for us, an intellectual family like the Alcotts placed a big emphasis on writing and Alcott kept a journal from the time of her childhood and sent out a huge number of letters to her friends and family. Because of this, Reisen is often able to tell us Alcott's story in her own voice and cut our impression of the moralistic narrator of Little Women with the biting wit and outspoken nature of the real Louisa May Alcott.

And now that I've read this biography, I want to go out and read everything by Louisa May Alcott that I can get my hands on....

Monday, July 19, 2010

Sailor & Lula: The Complete Novels by Barry Gifford (2010)

Lula Pace Fortune. Sailor Ripley. Coot Veal. Buford Dufour. Rip Ford. Dalceda Hopewell Delahoussaye. Lefty Grove. Elmer Désespéré. The names alone make this collection a first rate contribution to American literature.

Sometimes (although not often) I have to slog a bit to get through a free book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Other times the magical algorithm reads my tastes perfectly and sends me a book that couldn't do anything else but make me smile -- Sailor & Lula: The Complete Novels by Barry Gifford (2010) is just that kind of book.

If you have seen David Lynch's movie Wild at Heart, (which includes one of my favorite Nicolas Cage lines of all time) then you are already familiar with the cast of the first novel in this collection: the star-crossed lovebirds, Sailor and Lula; Lula's overprotective mother, Marietta; and the ill-fated Bobby Peru and his girlfriend, Perdita Durango.

In fact, the second novel in the collection, Perdita Durango was also made into a movie -- I've never seen it, but it has been added to my list. And if you take a second to watch the trailer, you will see that Javier Bardem's haircut in No Country for Old Men is actually not the most unflattering hairstyle he has ever sported.

Gifford wrote the screenplays for both of these film adaptations of his work (as well as the original screenplay for Lost Highway), and while Lynch obviously brought a big bag of his own Lynchiness to Wild at Heart, these books have the same humor, violence, philosophies, and energy.

I won't go through the whole collection except to say that the books as a whole, written between 1990 and 2009, take us way beyond the end of Wild at Heart, through Sailor and Lula's middle age, the life of their son, and all the way until the end of their lives. In each episode, the main narrative shoots out on side stories, brushes up against minor characters with one-paragraph plots (and awesome names), steps up to the radio to tell us of a crazy crime, has a little sex, reads the newspaper for a bit, tells us about someone's dream, and then unexpectedly and inevitably blows apart with a breath-taking (and plot changing) act of violence. And just when things seem like they can't get any worse, an equally unexpected act of violence and some good luck set everything right again.

Oddly enough, even though this collection is sub-titled "The Complete Novels," there is another Sailor and Lula novel that wasn't included, Baby Cat-Face (1995). That the publishers didn't include that novel doesn't make me too sad, though, because just when I thought I had exhausted the Southern mythology of Sailor and Lula, I've found that there is a whole other chapter waiting for me.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Bread Bible by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter (2006)

One of my resolutions this year was to finally get tough and make my own bread. I had made my share of banana bread and beer bread, but I wanted to make the kind that uses yeast and that you have to knead and wait around for. The internet led me to some tips and simple recipes, and I completed my goal pretty early in the year. But I wanted more!

I found just the book to scratch my bread knowledge itch in Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter's The Bread Bible (2006). This book starts with some introductory material on the history of bread making and the ingredients used in baking bread, then moves into some nicely illustrated step-by-step techniques and a nod to the different equipment a bread-maker might want. After this preparation the book pushes into an encyclopedic look at different types of bread from around the world, with a pretty heavy emphasis on breads from the U.K. and Europe. Finally, after reading about all the tasty bread options and drooling over the full-color photography on every page, Ingram and Shapter give us over 100 step-by-step recipes for a selection of breads that we read about in the first section of the book.

I haven't tried making any of these yet, but I have about a dozen recipes marked for immediate experimentation. My only qualm is that this book is a British publication and while the measurements are converted into US units, I still think a certain amount of translation is going to be necessary. There are also some endearing (and sometimes confusing) Britishisms used throughout: "greased greaseproof paper," "maize meal" (instead of corn meal), and she always seems to call a measuring cup a "jug." Overall, this is a fun read for a curious breadmaker and includes such a variety of recipes that it should cover pretty much every bread baking need (or knead).

Let the bready experiments begin!

Friday, July 09, 2010

Giant by Edna Ferber (1952)

I bought this copy of Giant by Edna Ferber (1952) about a year ago when I was up in Madison, Wisconsin for the wedding celebration of a year. It may seem odd to have purchased a novel all about Texas in a state about as far from Texas as you can get, but Ferber herself was born in Michigan and raised in the lovely city of Appleton, Wisconsin, so it is actually quite appropriate.

Giant is the story of Bick Benedict, the head of the Benedict Ranch, one of the largest and most prosperous in Texas. After the first World War, while doing business in Washington, he stops in Virginia to see a man about a horse. He comes back to Texas not only with the horse, but also with the man's lovely and outspoken daughter Leslie. Bick and Leslie are about as different as 1920s Virginia and Texas, but they are passionately in love and Leslie makes plenty of sacrifices to make their family work. Things aren't made any easier by Jett Rink, a crude and outspoken ranch hand who pretty awesomely crosses Bick and becomes a lifelong enemy of the family at the same time that he strikes it rich in oil.

Giant encompasses the story of the Benedict family and their friends and neighbors, but it also gives the reader a series of contrasts: cattle vs. oil, the old generation vs. the new one, the east cost vs. Texas, men vs. women, Mexicans vs. Anglos. Not surprisingly for Ferber (who also wrote the novel that Showboat -- one of the best musicals of all time -- was based on), racial equality and social justice are big themes in the book. While sometimes these themes are pushed at the expense of the story, the book is an interesting read as a non-Texan's view of these ranching men and women with all their quirks -- both the endearing ones and the irritating ones. Of course, maybe I liked it because I'm not from Texas either, even though I've lived here for ten years. I could see "real" Texans having some problems with the book...

I haven't ever seen the film version of Giant, the one staring James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor, but I have put it high on my list. I imagine it is chock full of 1950s hugeness and melodrama, and sometimes that is just the thing I want.