January 2, 2007

Although you could argue that this page is the only reason I ever wound up having a web site at all, I'm about to lay it to rest. I just don't update it often enough, and when I do, the pile is too big. So from now on, the PLAN is to post reviews on Snip as I read, so you can either just check Snip occasionally or check Snip, sorted by "Books" (categories are listed in the right side bar).

So that's where you'll find me. Here's a very quick look at what I read post November 16 to close out the year.

  • The Keep, by Jennifer Egan -- Very creepy. But very cool. Really keeps you guessing, at least at first.
  • The Kitchen Diaries, A Year in the Kitchen with Nigel Slater, by Nigel Slater -- Great conversational tone. Some actual what Elizabeth Zimmerman would call "pithy" recipes, and other recipes just related by paragraph i.e., you could figure it out. Nigel really got me interested in cooking again and now I'm obsessively buying his books whenever I find them.
  • Strong Is Your Hold, by Galway Kinnell (poetry) -- He's one of the sexiest men I've ever seen read live. These poems reflect his age: he's older and more settled and he's seeing death around him...but he's still intensely engaged with life. Just beautiful.
  • (the first half of) Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl -- I was reading this before Thanksgiving and brought it with me over my long weekend...but had absolutely no time to read. Then when I got home, I just didn't find myself interested in picking it back up. I might finish it in 2007. We'll see.
  • Semper Fi, A Novel of the Corps, by W.E.B. Griffin -- A total BOY book. The male equivalent of a Harlequin perhaps? But I found it entertaining nonetheless.
  • Versailles, by Kathryn Davis -- Really good. See review here.
  • Abundance, A Novel of Marie Antoinette, by Sena Jeter Naslund -- Also really good, discussed in same review linked to above.
  • All This Heavenly Glory, by Elizabeth Crane -- Longest sentences in current fiction (the quote I give you below is not representative of the whole). Henry James would be intrigued. They leave you breathless. This time, all the stories about the same heroine, but jumping around in time/place/etc. Very relevant to a 30-something female, you feel like Crane's been listening to your inner thoughts: Why did career have to imply only one thing? Why did goals seem to imply an end? What happens if you meet all your goals? Do you like, shoot off into space or something and burst into a worldwide fireworks display announcing goal completion and then cease to exist? What if she became completely disenchanted with anything remoately related to art or entertainment and suddenly became obsessed with backgammon? What if the CIA called and the CIA said, We have a job that we think only you can do? What if she stumbled into Baskin Robbins one day and felt a calling?"

That's it for my reading in 2006. I started off 2007 with Jess Walters' The Zero which I'm about halfway through. It's a little crazy!

Thanks for reading, and writing me with your comments and recommendations, and hope to hear from you in the future, as you continue to read along with me on Snip in the future... You will, right? :)

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November 16, 2006

Slow month for reading, but a worthwhile one.

Read Blue by Christopher Whitcomb in an airport and on a plane. Some interesting things to think about regarding the FBI/CIA and anti-terrorism, with some Christian bible-bangers thrown in for good measure. Enjoyable, but definitely JUST genre fiction with some very current day opinions thrown in.

You mention the word 'nuclear' and people go nuts. It's the news shows; they've gotten this thing blown completely out of proportion. Joe Six-pack couldn't tell you the difference between REMs and an RC cola, but he'll whoop up holy hell if some FOX News talking head mentions the phrase 'dirty nuke'.

Thank God for indifference, he thought to himself. Rush Limbaugh and Mike Savage and Bill O'Reilly had been brilliant in their ability to prey upon it.

The next thing I finished was Towing Jehovah, by James Morrow. What a great book. A black comedy farce set squarely in the realm of sci fi religious fiction yet based very much in the now/real world. God has died. God, dead, his actual physical body (Corpus Dei) fallen into the sea. And a former oil tanker captain responsible for one of the worst oil spills in history is sent by angels to retrieve the body. And that's just where it begins. This book was a riot. But not just fun, also extremely intelligent, well-written, theologically and philosophically intriguing. And BONUS there are two sequels to go with it which I've of course already ordered. My dad is calling this trilogy "the most exhilarating books he's read in years." And the man reads way more stuff than I do, and doesn't stick strictly to fiction like I do either. That's pretty high praise.

I don't see you at Mass anymore.
It's like fucking, father. You gotta be up for it.

Lord, it was glorious being a pagan. The choices were so simple. Vodka, rum, or beer? Oral, anal or vaginal?

It was my idea to inter Him with His masterpieces. Whale, orchid, sparrow, cobra. We had a tough time deciding what to include. Adabiel made a big pitch for human inventions...argued they were His by extension. Wheel, plow, VCR, harpsichord, hardball - we're all such Yankees fans - but then Zaphiel said 'Okay, let's put in a .356 Magnum,' and that settled the matter.

After Morrow, I went back to finish Be My Knife, by David Grossman, the intensity of which had caused me to set it aside for a bit. Probably not a book to read when you're lonely, as the overwhelming lonely aching yearning of the characters is really overpowering. A man catches sight of a woman he doesn't know at a reunion, begins writing to her, and immediately they are both caught in a whirlwind of revelation and feelings and... The first two-thirds of the book, you read only Yair's (the male's) letters. You had to intuit what you think may or may not have been in the replies that are referred to. He's really intense and unrelenting and so so so self-punishing and there was a point at which I just had to put it down and walk away. I was glad I came back to it in the end, but this is one of those books where in order to read it, you have to accept the fallacy from the beginning. You have to say OK fine, he wrote to her, she agreed to write, they IMMEDIATELY had a connection, etc., etc. If you let yourself not believe those things or doubt them, then the story won't work for you at all. Some of this book was almost unbearably sexy (see this I posted earlier). Some of it was very painful and biting. Either way, it is not for the faint of heart.

And as a follow-up to seeing a very very creepy chilling movie (The Prestige, see what I had to say here), I read Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn. Really really good. Really really creepy and icky and intense and disturbing, and... Wow. Much lighter in some ways than the Grossman reviewed above, but heavier in others. Some really really cool symbolism in this book and if you don't want to know ANYTHING before you read it (although I would not consider this a true spoiler....) STOP READING RIGHT NOW... Great book, go read it. If you want to hear what I thought was so great in the imagery, scroll down.



Don't yell at me if you read this by "accident..."


OK....so the main character is a girl murder-beat reporter, living in Chicago, from a small-town. Her boss assigns her to return home as two young girls have been killed. She also had a sister die when she was young. Turns out, she is pretty messed up about home/her mom/etc., and...she was a "cutter." But rather than just randomly cutting herself, she cut words into herself. All over, almost every place she could reach. Throughout the novel, as she encounters different people, situations, feelings, different words on her skin, previously "cut" or carved, glow, or flush, or itch, or seem to be standing out. Really really creepy, but wow, really neat imagery. It was very cool. And in some ways, similar to how I feel about certain tattoos. Also, she drinks a lot. And it's described in a very tactile way, similar to reading A.L.Kennedy characters who drink. You can almost taste it on your tongue as you read. Needless to say, this book comes very highly recommended.

Now I'm reading The Keep, by Jennifer Egan. Just started it on the way home, so far so good, but think I've somehow picked up another creepy one. How did I get on this path... Isn't it funny how one thing leads to another sometimes?

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October 13, 2006

Back again so soon? Indeed! :)

  • The Wind-Up Bird chronicle, by Haruki Murakami. I know many, many, MANY people who love this book like it's their first-born child. I thought it was very well-written. I found occasional moments entrancing. But I didn't love it. It didn't make me want to run out and read everything he's ever written. For me, it didn't live up to the hype. But ain't that always the problem with hype...

  • Restless, by William Boyd. I'm so excited that both Ward Just and William Boyd put out new books this Fall! Definitely two of my favorite living white male authors. This book takes the old "my dad was secretly a spy" story and twists it to the female angle instead. Two strong female leads. Two intriguing, fully formed, tangled stories told back to back. I loved it.

  • Mind Over Matter, Conversations with the Cosmos, by K.C. Cole. I've never read anyone else so skilled at making science transparent to the lay person. I didn't like this as much as the book of hers I read last year, however, ("The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty"), purely I think because this book is much shorter, choppier pieces (most taken, I believe, from her columns in the Los Angeles Times). That said, I thought the last section " 'Political' Science" was very powerful and very right on the money. There's no bullshitting here.

Now I'm reading Be My Knife" by David Grossman, which so far is very powerful, and almost mesmerizing. I read about Grossman in the New York Times. An Israeli writer, he's been an outspoken voice for peace in the Middle East for many, many years, and just recently lost his young (21 or 20 years old I think) son to the current conflict (his son fulfilling the Israeli-required/enforced military duty). His political writings are supposed to be amazing - if they're anywhere near as compelling as his fiction, I would imagine so. Quoted in the article on his son's death was his good friend A.B. Yehoshua last year, who I read a novel ("The Liberated Bride") by earlier this year, thanks to my Dad. So often the talented are surrounded by each other, are they not.

Back again soon, although likely not as fast as I was this time!

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October 1, 2006

Quick and Dirty.

  • Hocus Pocus, by Kurt Vonnegut - Vintage Vonnegut. Sarcastic. Quick. Biting. (Good. Critical of the politics around us, as he always is.)

  • Private Wars, by Greg Rucka - Girl kicking ass. (Good. Genre fiction. Lara Croft if she actually worked for the British secret service.)

  • The Dissident, by Nell Freudenberger - Lies between people. Lies to yourself. What is real. What matters. (Good! Evolving as a writer! Impressive!)

  • Which Brings Me to You, by Steve Almond & Julianna Baggott - Intelligent. Romantic. Sassy yet scared. Vulnerable. (Good! Epistolary fiction, one of my faves.)

  • China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen F. McHugh - Futuristic. Intense. Sad. Lovely. (Good! Very different than her shorts I've read.)

  • The Lone Pilgrim, by Laurie Colwin - This is what love is. This is how love hurts. This is how love pleases. This is love. (Good! Hits the nail on the head.)

  • Forgetfulness, by Ward Just - Grief. Pain. Unsolvable aches. Just just keeps getting better. (Good! But did not feel the 9/11 connection I see being mentioned in all the reviews. This works for ANY TIME.)

  • When the Messenger Is Hot, by Elisabeth Crane - Breathless. Exhilarating. Can't stop turning the page. (Good!!!!)

  • That Eye, That Sky, by Tim Winton - Vividly alive. Curious. Confused. Questioning. Life? Death? Faith? (Good. But found the end confusing. Or not something I'm willing to be involved in.)

  • A Student of Living Things, by Susan Richards Streve - Grief. Bewilderment. Bad decisions. Family ties. (Good. At one point, got worried, "I am NOT going to like where this is going." But the next chapter took a turn...for the BETTER, and I loved how it ended.)

Now I'm reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles so highly beloved by my readers. I think it's good, but I don't love it.

Some moments from Kurt Vonnegut:
I am not writing this book for people below the age of 18, but I see no harm in telling young people to prepare for failure rather than success, since failure is the main thing that is going to happen to them.

Speaking of atheism, I remember one time when Jack Patton and I went to a semon in Vietnam delivered by the highest-ranking Chaplain in the Army. He was a general. The sermon was based on what he claimed was a well-known fact, that there were no Atheists in foxholes. I asked Jack what he thought of the sermon afterward, and he said, "There's a Chaplain who never visited the front."

Back again "soon", hopefully in a more timely fashion.

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August 24, 2006

I'm procrastinating a little bit this afternoon and what better way than updating my web site? So here is a quick look at the books I've read since my last post.

First, another installment in the mystery series by mother/daughter team P.J. Tracy Snow Blind. Good book, but not quite enough of the Monkeewrench game and it felt a little short to me. 300 pages in big print with huge margins in a bigger-than-trade hardback? That's pretty short. I would have enjoyed it more if it had been a little heftier. Some great quotes about Minnesota in particular, and Scandinavians in general, including: Hell, when you think about the history of the Vikings, you gotta figure pretty much everybody has a little Scandinavian blood in them one way or the other.

Ensuite, j'ai lu Skin, by Kellie Wells, one of the current LitBlog Co-Op recommendations. This reminded me a lot of Kathryn Davis' Thin Place read earlier in the year (scroll down to see how I felt about that), but I liked Davis' book better although I'm hard pressed to really nail down why. Skin has a very mystical/religious focus to it. Some of the characters are very religious, some not at all, some are perhaps prophets or seers. While eventually connections are drawn between most of them, they are not "connected" in the way of Davis' book. A lot of loneliness here. And a lot of new words. I don't think I'm bragging when I say that I am pretty well read and tend to have an impressive vocabulary despite my lack of usage of such here on this site. Yet while reading this book, I was surprised by how many times I thought "Hmmm, I've never seen that word before..." For example, "fescue" and "ylem" both in the first five pages. Sometimes that was distracting. Here's a quote I liked early on; I wouldn't say it's typical of this book, but it's humorous: Harlan's La-Z-Boy rocker/recliner, normally recalcitrant and squeaky, sits silent. It knows something is amiss for it has not been properly rocked for months now, and it knows the bones that occasionally stick in its open maw do not belong to its beloved. Recliners are not easily duped. The possibility of mutiny looms large and palpable in this living room.

I finally read I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith after hearing about it ad nauseam from so many people over the years. I really, really liked the narrative voice. I enjoyed the way she painted pictures of her days/their lives. But I was a little disappointed with how the romances wind up -- although I know it feels "right" in the end, my sad romantic heart was holding out for something different. Am I giving it away if I say Stephen was my favorite? Just to be in love seemed the most blissful luxury I had ever known. The thought came to me that perhaps it is the loving that counts, not the being loved in return - that perhaps true loving can never know anything but happiness.

I used to describe Penelope Fitzgerald books to my friend Matt as "perfect little gems." Finely crafted, beautiful in their succinctness. I could say the same about When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka. A tiny little book about a Japanese family sent to the internment camps in WWII. The clarity and precision of this book are quite lovely. Extremely well written. Like Fitzgerald, a quick easy read, but one that stays with you.

And finally, I read Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy. Halfway through this book, I got a big sweep of deja-vu. Have I read it before? I'm not sure. I may have just read part of it published as a story prior to the book? I may have read it from the library? The end didn't feel familiar although the first third really did. A family saga, a loved genre here at GirlReaction as you must know by now. Several generations, blighted by family secrets, lies, Catholicism, sex, etc. I believe her new book focuses more fully on one of the characters from this book. The characters' pain becomes palpable at times.

Now I am reading Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut, with breaks for short stories from The Lone Pilgrim, by Laurie Colwin. Betsy, you were right, the last section of the title story gets it just right. Wow.

That's all for now, I've got a big stack waiting after that, including Suite Francaise, a new Greg Rucka, the latest George R.R. Martin, Proust #3, the other two Litblog recommendations for the summer, three stacks two feet high I won't even bothering getting into a list of, the new stack of books I bought today (see "Snip" for more info) and The Seas by Samantha Hunt that I don't remember the why or wherefore of buying but am completely intrigued by the blurb on the back. Talk to you again soon!

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August 7, 2006

It was a busy, busy July, and I am looking at only one free weekend in August right now (the last one), when it will likely be time to make another trip to the nephews. So although there is plenty of reading going on, there is very little time to talk about it.

Since my last update, I read four more of the Lee Child Jack Reacher books, so I believe I'm all caught up to the last-published but first-read-by-me on my trip to Oz book. I continue to be in love with Jack Reacher and see no reason to stop the enjoyment of reading this series as of yet. Blew through the following: Echo Burning, Without Fail, Persuader, The Enemy. Particularly enjoyed "The Enemy" which took Reacher back in time to his days as an MP.

In addition to my Reacher immersion, I have also read three non-fiction books in the last month (shocker! I know!):

  • Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal - Reading this book was really like reading a compilation of blog entries. Ordered alphabetically and cross-referenced. Very enjoyable. (Recommended by Cinnamon! Thanks!) There were so many sections that rang true to me; I felt like all my neuroses were being exposed...but they were someone else's! Sunday Undies Jen if you're reading, I think you would really enjoy this (and I'm not trying to imply that you're neurotic). Em/Michelle, I picture you quite enjoying it as well.

  • The Afterlife, by Donald Antrim - I'm not sure where I read about this book. Maybe Bookslut? It's a memoir of the author's mother. Her alcoholism, her crazy behavior, their complicated relationship, his family. I found it very moving. But I liked it less at the end than the beginning. Not that I thought "Oh I don't like this book as much as I thought" but rather that I thought the beginning chapters were stronger than the ending ones. The first two parts I couldn't tear myself away from. The increasing insaneness of dealing with people on the brink was really palpable while reading this. Unfortunately, an understanding of reality is a liability in a situation in which reality is inadmissible - rather, in a situation in which people's feelings and hunches, their hungers and appetites, serve as reality.

  • Guests of the Ayatollah, by Mark Bowden - This is a great book. Mark Bowden already blew my mind a few years ago with Black Hawk Down so I was pretty sure I was going to enjoy this; then I listened to a Leonard Lopate interview with him about this book and that cemented it, I raced right to the bookstore on the way home and read it as often as I could given work/etc. commitments. Put it this way: It's a 600-some-page hardcover bigger than some dictionaries yet I carried it on the El to and from work because I just couldn't put it down. Completely entrancing. So detailed you'd think it was unbelievable, except the details are so authentic, you have no choice but to be in that place. Bowden makes history come alive. And there was an added layer of interest based on the current Middle Eastern situation of course. The modern Western World does not recognize revelation and divine right as the root of government authority... Indeed. And this could be read equally as applying to Iraq/Iran, or to the insanely scarily Religious-Right-to-the-detriment-of-all-others leanings of the current administration: The only political system that services the majority is one that respects true human spirituality, something deeply personal and almost infinitely various.

In addition to these dallyings in the non-fiction world, so unusual for me, and yet surprisingly cropping up over the past two years, I managed two fiction reads as well.

Thanks to the recommendations over at the Lit Blog Co-op (I am too lazy to get the link right now, but email if you need it and I'll find it), I read a very charming book that falls somewhere between the fiction & nonfiction worlds: Michael Martone, by Michael Martone. The entire book is a series of contributor's notes, all of which introduce a version of Michael Martone, although no one but the author really knows which of these notes would be the most accurate. Some directly contradict others; some seem to be in agreement with others...yet perhaps those may be the further from reality? It is impossible to know and even that becomes part of the charm. The fascination of watching while someone constantly retells their life...what details are important to which outcomes, what futures are desired, what undesired events bring result in better outcomes... You could read and re-read this and have a different picture of the author every time. I'll definitely be checking out his other fiction & nonfiction works (although I'm assuming most are more clearly in one camp than the other, compared to this book).

And finally, I mean FINALLY, I finished Book 2 of Proust: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. While I felt at times that the narrator's (Marcel's?) neuroses would get the better of me, it really picked up at the end and I think the momentum continues into Book 3. I had been told that Book 2 is the test: if you get through it, you'll sail through the rest. So, sailing on, I hope...

But first I'm reading Skin, by Kellie Wells (another Lit Blog Co-Op recommendation) and I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith, which so many people have recommended. I am enjoying the young narrator's tone so far...

Hopefully I'll be back with reports on those two and maybe others before the month is out...I can't wait until September when my life goes back to normal!!

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June 13, 2006

Just two reads to tell you about quick before I head out of town.

For Betsy's "book club" (with her goal of converting people into short story readers), I read In Persuasion Nation, stories by George Saunders. As I mentioned last time, this is wicked-funny societal critism. If you don't like black humor, maybe not for you. If you do, I think you will love these. I'm not going to say much more about it, but I will direct you over to Betsy's posts where you can read the comments and hear lots of good insight: day one, two, three, four, five. I am now secretly in love with Betsy's cousin Matt. Does he not seem super smart and fun?

Very glad to been introduced to Saunders. Thought these were pointedly perfect and as sharply incisive as could be. Looking forward to catching up on his "back pages."

And quick, in time to give it back in person, I finished reading a loaner from Dad: Poetic Justice; the Literary Imagination and Public Life, by Martha Nussbaum. I would label Nussbaum a philosopher, but point out her official position as professor of law and ethics. This book's main premise, boiled down, is the importance of a literary/humanities education (and an ongoing one at that) in public life. That, frankly, to be judge (and/or jury really); to be able to act humanely whether in the interests of others, or oneselves; to be, say, someone making decisions that affect all our citizens (hello jackhats in the senate & congress); literature is one of the only ways we can walk in the other's shoes enough to really understand what we are judging.

Here are a couple of her thoughts:

Group hatred and the oppression of groups is very often based on a failure to individualize. Racism, sexism, and many other forms of pernicious prejudice frequently ground themselves in the attribution of negative characteristics to the entire group. ... This does not mean that even in contact with an individual one cannot find many ways of dehumanizing him or her in thought. It means, however, that when one does manage for whatever reason to take up to the individual the literary attitude of sympathetic imagining, the dehumanizing portrayal is unsustainable, at least for a time. ... Literary understanding, I would therefore argue, promotes habits of mind that lead toward social equality in that they contribute to the dismantling of the stereotypes that support group hatred.

[Walt Whitman] claims that the light of the poetic imagination is a crucial agent of democratic equality for these and other excluded people, since only that imagination will get the facts of their lives right, and see in their unequal treatment a degradation of oneself. I claim that it would be a good thing to have judges who could see into those lines. The imagination involved in them exemplifies a sort of public rationality we badly need at this time in this country, where increasingly we are refusing one another this sort of inclusive vision, closing the doors of sympathy that Whitman wishered here to open.

This is powerful stuff. Of course, it's not light reading, so if mysteries or humorous fiction are your preferred relaxation, this may not be for you. If you're ready to confront these issues, this book gives much ground for pondering. This is what I would want to do with law; exploring what it can do, and what it needs to do better. Now if everyone would wake up and see that the current political situation is only causing detriment to all...

And now I've dipped back into Proust (you may remember I read Book 1 in December) and am enjoying Book 2, the new translation being titled In the Shadow of Young Girls, the original A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. It is whipping right along... And if you've forgotten, and feel the need to know, I am reading the new UK translations put out by Penguin.

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June 3, 2006

Just a quick drop in as I am meant to be working on my backtack project right now and it MUST leave the house THIS weekend...

Continuing to plow through my Australia purchases, I read Lies I Told About a Girl, by Anson Cameron. The story of a young "townie" scholarshipped to the expensive boarding school, and what happens when a young prince comes to live there. As with many novels with teenager protagonists, this brings the horrors of high school rushing back. Young love vs. young lust, competition, and the pangs of being the outsider. Blech.

With her watching me I fret about my walk. I work my way through about eight gaits trying for manliness and cool before I drop into the gunslinger saunter I've watched Clint do on the boardwalks of cowering towns.

Slipped in another installment in the Jack Reacher series Running Blind, by Lee Child. Reacher continues to be the perfect man.

Next, I got stuck somewhere with a finished book and an iPod running low on gas, and wound up picking up The Pact, by Jodi Picoult. I've read quite a few Picoults as Amy's dad knows Picoult's parents or something, so you can always find a few of them lying around the Fong house. She's one of those authors that falls somewhere between genre fiction and dense literature... In The Pact, two teenagers have just attempted suicide, but only one of them has died, and their families (and the police) are trying to figure out what happened. It kept me interested for the length of the book, but not much beyond that.

I don't know what possessed me to pick up Adverbs, by Daniel Handler as I tried to read his Lemony Snicket books and I just wasn't a fan. In the end, however, I decided that I liked this book, although I didn't feel it was entirely successful in what he was trying to do. I don't know if I can explain it...but it's one of those books that was trying to convey heavy ideas but doing them in such a light way that it seems more like the characters are in the background while the author is telling you something (as opposed to the characters actually feeling this way). Part of that is probably from the authorial intrusions/direct comments to the reader that happen...throughout the book but not in any consistent timing/manner. There are themes (cocktail drinks, etc.) and characters that run throughout stories; there are characters who seem to be the same character but with a new name; there are different sets of characters who seem to have had other characters' past experiences... It's almost David Mitchell-like in its episodic, disconnected yet connected, meandering style (yet not a Mitchell kind of book at all, don't get me wrong). I didn't think it was a GREAT book, certainly not like Michael Chabon ("A thrilling feat of tragic magic") or Dave Eggers ("Anyone who lives to read gorgeous writing will want to lick this book and sleep with it between their legs") did, according to the blurbs on the back. But I did enjoy it. I didn't regret the time I spent on it.

And stuck in the worst airport I think I've ever been in (Phoenix) with a finished book in one hand (and a suitcase full of new books from Powell's already lost to the land of checked baggage), I finally picked up A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby. Hornby used to be on my "buy in hardback the instant his new book comes out" list; "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy" are truly gorgeous books. But "How to Be Good" was NOT. In fact, it was worse than Not. I really didn't like it. And reading the synopsis when this book came out (another suicide book - ugh, what is WRONG with people), I wasn't too interested.

Well, I'm certainly glad I didn't buy this one in hardback. Not a total waste, but not something I particularly want to remember. Certainly wouldn't bring this to a desert island! Written in four different voices (the four suicide attempters), there is again (similar to Handler) the occasional "direct speak to the reader". Yet sooooo occasional that it doesn't fit with the style of the rest of the book, and certainly couldn't be considered "expected" to happen. Also occasionally the tone of the four narrators seems to get a little mixed up. At one point, one says something that is too much in another's voice; one seems to refer to something in a different character's past as having happened to them... But there is a teenager who swears a lot, so I enjoyed those moments, and in typical Hornby fashion there are a few "shout-outs", I'll give you examples of both of those:

Earlier that week - Christmas Day to be precise - I'd finished Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which is a totally awesome novel. I was actually going to jump with a copy, not only because it would have been kinda cool, and would've added a little mystique to my death, but because it might have been a good way of getting more people to read it...

How do people, like, not curse? Is it possible? There are all these gaps in speech where you just have to put a "fuck." I'll tell you who the most admirable people in the world are: newscasters. If that was me, I'd be like, "And the motherfuckers flew the fucking plane right into the Twin Towers." How could you not, if you're a human being? Maybe they're not so admirable. Maybe they're robot zombies.

But in the end, I didn't think this book was very satisfying. The characters aren't ones I'd want to know more about (the ultimate test of a novel), I didn't learn anything new about suicide, or what happens if it doesn't work out... Oh Nick Hornby, where has the writer in you gone? Find him and bring him back, please!!

Now I'm reading a philosophical book about law & literature, "Poetic Justice" by Martha Nussbaum (non-fiction! Again! Wow, I'm really changing in my old age!), and some wicked, wicked-funny stories by George Saunders "In Persuasion Nation." As I commented to Betsy, I am referred to these as wicked-funny versus wickedly funny on purpose. Wicked-funny as in a specific type of funny vs. wickedly funny as in soooo funny that it reaches the level of wickedly funny. I don't know if that makes any sense to you. but it makes sense to me!

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May 13, 2006

Well, here I am with my regular "how did it get to be a month since the last time I posted" check-in. How can one be so tired when all one really does is read and watch TV?

  • Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell -- What a GREAT book. OK, let's backtrack. I read "Ghostwritten" in 2004. It was a good book, but I didn't wholeheartedly love it. Each chapter was about a new/different person (with some very tenuous connections scattered across the book) and while some chapters were wonderful, some chapters, in laymen's terms, I really didn't like; or, in more academic terms, I didn't find the narrator sympathetic and thus could not find a way "in" to that particular section. In "Cloud Atlas" which I read last year, Mitchell continued to use the hodge-podge "each story is a different chapter" approach, but in that book, he circled back to each primary character - each setup got a couple chapters rather than one. And the connections between the variant plots were much more apparent. Really well written, really enjoyable.

    In "Black Swan Green", Mitchell has gone in a completely different direction. He's been joking with reporters that he's finally written "his first novel", as it is the semi-biographical look back at childhood that so many authors start out with. It follows one character, Jason, a 13 year old living on the edge between popular kids and the beat-on kids. Each chapter is a month in his 13th year. While reviewers have called it a bildungsroman, Mitchell has also been pointing out in interviews that in fact, his character does not "come of age" in the novel, but is still stuck in his teens, still very much the boy he was at the beginning of the book. Grown, perhaps yes. Come of age, perhaps no.

    Here's a quote from an article in the Book Standard: Mitchell knows that Black Swan Green will be tagged as a coming-of-age novel, but rejects the moniker: "Jason becomes aware that there is a thing of coming-of-age but it's not happening to him yet. It's an in-between year, where the tantrums of being a kid don't work but you're not adept at lying and you can't manipulate adults. You're stuck in the middle."

    It's always really interesting to watch a writer's skills advance from book to book (and sadly, it's not the case with every writer, is it), and in Mitchell's case it's quite breathtaking. Ghostwritten I liked, but not wholeheartedly; Cloud Atlas I thought was really good, but although it made my top 10, it wasn't my favorite book of the year; Black Swan Green is the best book I've read this year. Poignant, sad, funny, gross, cruel, yet sweet. Just like your typical 13 year old.

    Since I didn't read it before, I'm going to go back ad read Mitchell's actual first novel, "Number9Dream." And then I'm going to sit around waiting not-very-patiently for his next work... He's definitely become a "must read" in my book.

    I lay back on the armless sofa. I've never listened to music lying down. Listening's reading if you close your eyes.

    [While studying Beethoven...]Composers spent half their lives walking across Germany to work for different archbishops and archdukes. The other half must've been lost in church. (Bach's choirboys used his original manuscripts to wrap their sandwiches in for years after he'd died. That's the only other thing I've learnt in music this term.)

  • The Light Fantastic, by Terry Pratchett - Another installment in Prachett's irreverent sci fi world. "Jolly good fun" (in a British accent). But only for you if you enjoy light, wacky, tongue-in-cheek fantasy.

    No one takes you sheriously when you've got no teeths...

  • Tripwire, by Lee Child - Another installment in the Jack Reacher series. Reading this, and watching Without a Trace, NUMB3RS, sometimes CSI and Law & Order really makes you want to learn karate. And fight. A lot.

    Reacher on Vietnam (but wouldn't it work quite well for Iraq as well now): Wrong place, wrong time, wrong rason, wrong methods, wrong approach, wrong leadership. No real backing, no real will to win, no coherent strategy. Indeed.

  • Everyman, by Philip Roth - It's become a popular pastime to hate Roth's books. Or to consider him irrelevant. Well - you're in the wrong place if that's what you're looking for. Sure, not EVERY book he writes is as amazing as his reputation. Are yours? But the raucous black comedy "Sabbath's Theater" is a desert island pick for me; the Zuckerman books could be textbooks on how to write autobiographically based introspection; his "late novels" often referred to as the American Trilogy ("American Pastoral," "I Married a Communist," and "The Human Stain") were breathtaking and it's not his fault someone made a crap-ass movie out of one of them; and "The Plot Against America" was brilliant and could not have been done half as well by anyone else. So yes, I'm on the Roth bandwagon and not because I fell for the hype but because I've read almost all of his 28-odd books and found amazing writing in most of them. Perhaps "Everyman" wouldn't make my list of top 10 Roth books; that said, I really enjoyed it. Where Joan Didion's "Year of Magical Thinking" was about the year after death, Everyman examines the year (and the time) before death. They could work as companion pieces (yes, I have a big thing about "pairs"). An old, maybe not good man, looking back, wondering, wishing, regretting, and hoping. It's quite good.

    "But there's no remaking reality," he said softly..."Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes. There's no other way."

    Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre.

  • Magic Lessons, by Justine Larbalestier - I feel about the Larbalestier books the way other people feel about Harry Potter. Soooo good. So magical. Too short. Too long to wait for the next one! Cannot get enough of the random Aussie slang, and Reason's "jump now, ask later" methods.

  • And back to attacking the pile of books bought in Australia with...Cloudstreet, by Tim Winton What a gorgeous, gorgeous book. A crazy, sprawling epic of two down-on-their-luck families sharing a house and struggling to make a way of it. The book spans 20 years. It wasn't long enough! I want to know more! I didn't want to put it down...

    Winton did an amazing job of both giving all these many characters their own individual voices and of doing it so authentically. Here's a quote from Jabberwock's talk with him: About the acclaimed Cloudstreet -- which is a cult classic in Australia - Tim was reticent, except to say that he wanted to achieve the tone "of someone whispering in your ear". "Fun comes in short bursts, and music and poetry can be found in coarse speech," he said of the novel's staccato style.

    And here's a quote from early in the book; one quiet moment in all the ruckus:

    A long time after the house went quiet, she heard a door open across the hall. She got out of bed and pulled the door the tiniest bit to see a boy in pyjamas at the landing window looking out at the starless sky. In a moment of light she saw his face turn her way. His eyes were black. He was beautiful.

  • A Mathematician's Apology, by G.H. Hardy - A loaner from my Dad, who has been doing a lot of "math" reading inspired by Charlie on NUMB3RS (no, I'm not joking about that). An essay on math the way some write on writing; why one does it, what it means, the creative process. Tangible regret on the author's part that he's past his time. Lovely.

And now I'm reading "Lives I Told About a Girl" by Anson Cameron, another Aussie, about kids at a remote boarding school in the bush. It's good.

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April 16, 2006

So we're four months into the year, and I've only posted to this page twice so far. So much for my "posting after every two or three books" plan! Ah well...

Unfortunately I did not post in March before I left for Australia, even though I had quite a few books to tell you about already at that point. So this is going to be short and sweet, and then we'll see if I can do better in the second quarter with timely reports than I have so far...


  • (half of) Victoria Victorious, by Jean Plaidy - This book was so incredibly BAD. I almost can't put it into words. I had seen these on the shelves for years, there's one for almost every queen in English history. DON'T DO IT. What a waste of money and TIME, which there is always too little of. A complete travesty. No one reigns for 50 years of peace without having SOMETHING to do with it yet the book portrays Victoria as a simpering idiot, following the whims of her husband and advisors. WHATEVER. Sucked, sucked, sucked, and as I said, I put it down halfway through. Not Worth the Pain.

  • The Accidental, by Ali Smith - This was very good, but I didn't like it as much as some the reviewers. I really liked the chapters written from the children's voices, not so much the parents. I didn't like the bits from Amber. And I didn't like the "was it real" implications at the end. Well written, but uneven. Some very lyrical parts.

  • Raymond + Hannah, by Stephen Marche - Stephen Marche is a friend (or former student maybe? I forget?) of someone I've corresponded with on the web. Amanda of Etsy maybe? This was a funny little book. Part third-person narrative, part epistolary, with side "synopsis" quotes like you'd expect to see in a magazine article or a research report. Very romantic. Very descriptive, you could almost "see" Jerusalem in Hannah's letters. But I was thrown off by the odd break in style that happens in the very last chapter. Not sure if I'm supposed to think a certain thing, or not. Liked it all a lot, until the end.

  • Cash, by Johnny Cash - One of the after effects of watching Walk the Line so many times is you just want to know more about Johnny Cash. Great conversational tone, you feel like you're sitting in a room listening to him talk.

  • I'll Go to Bed at Noon, by Gerard Woodward - Crazy family of drunks, all at slightly different levels of drunkdom. Their interactions, disasters, lives, deaths. Some of it was hilariously funny, some achingly sad. And turns out there is an earlier book about this same family! I'm going to have to go back and read that one! Bonus: learned a new word: autarkic = self sufficient.

  • The Color of Magic, by Terry Pratchett - The first book of what is a huge spiraling outgrowth of sci fi books, some in direct sequence, some in loose connection, called DiscWorld. It's been a while since I've found a new fantasy series I wanted to follow... Discworld is a flat planet resting on the backs of four elephants, which are in turn standing on the back of a giant turtle. There you go - what else do you need to know!

  • Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter, by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee - Stephanie's second book. This one "sounds" more like her to me - similar to her web posts: stories/essays on this that or the other in the yarn/knitting obsession.

  • Mutant Message: Down Under, by Marlo Morgan - Sent to me before my trip. The story (true? Not true? Apparently a subject of great debate) of an American woman taken on a four-month walkabout by an aboriginal tribe who teach her their ways of life. Some of it was very..."true"...in the way"everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten" is true - yes, but not really. And some of it...well I'm perhaps too jaded and skeptical to give in to the message of this book.

    I don't believe you can heal a broken bone by rubbing some mud over it. But I agree that "Little is gained in a lifetime if what you believe at age seven is still how you feel at age thirty-seven. It is necessary to shed old ideas, habits, opinions, and even companions sometimes. Letting go is sometimes a very difficult human lesson."

    It's one of those books that people would probably describe as "spiritual, but not religious." But that's where I jump off the boat... After I read it, my cousin told me there is a huge controversy about the book - if you google it you find there are detractors saying it never happened, couldn't have happened, etc., then the author saying it did happen, she only called it fiction so the tribe wouldn't have to declare royalties... Apparently quite the controversy. I didn't "give in" to the book's message. If you did, you would probably find it really rewarding. I'm more of a Bruce Chatwin girl, myself.

During Australia:

  • Garner, by Kristin Allio - Finished this on the plane to LA (first part of the gazillion hour trip). 1925. Part diary. Part nature descriptions. Part narrative. The story of a girl, and a town, and a man. If you are an Andrea Barrett fan ("Ship Fever," or "The Voyage of the Narwhal"), then I think you would really enjoy this.

  • My Sister's Continent, by Gina Frangello - Where Garner was a good first novel, My Sister's Continent is a great one. Story of two twins in their 20s, told primarily from one twin's viewpoint. The back cover's description of it being "a contemporary retelling of Freud's infamous 'Dora'" made me wary of it. Having read it, I'd just throw that description away. You don't need to think about Freud (or know the Dora story) to read it. It's very intense, including some sadomasochistic sex and self destructive behavior, so there are definitely people I would feel I couldn't recommend this to. But if you've got the stomach for that..well, it'll be worth your while. I could barely put this book down - I kept thinking "I need to try to sleep... Sleep? Instead of reading this? I don't think so!" Cannot recommend it highly enough.

  • The Apricot Colonel, by Marion Halligan - And here's where I start dipping into Australian fiction. Halligan is a writer of many genres, I have a more general "literature" book waiting in the wings. The Apricot Colonel is in the mystery genre. A bit spooky. Until the very end, you're never really sure who's good or bad, who can be trusted, who can't. A fast, short read (very big print!). Fun!

  • A Carnivore's Inquiry, by Sabina Murray - (Australian) At first, this book really reminded me of "Here Kitty Kitty" that I told you about in my last post. She seems drunk, obsessive, self destructive, barreling down the hill into homeless (and hopeless), desperate hell. But then...then there is something else happening in this book. It's a very slow reveal, as the narrator is hiding from herself. And the freakish parts are told in such a nonfreakish way...they almost seem normal... Liked it a lot!

  • Fly Away Peter, by David Malouf - (Australian) This is a truly beautiful, lyrically written book. Malouf is also a poet and it's quite obvious. The sanctuary of nature juxtaposed against the mud and death of World War I. This book blew me away. I've got a lot of Malouf left to read and I can't wait. "A life wasn't for anything. It just was."

  • One Shot, by Lee Child - A quick mystery break (picked up at the airport in Cairns, I believe) between serious novels. Child is a Brit who's moved to the States and writes a series about Jack Reacher, a former military intelligence officer, now drifter, who of course winds up solving mysteries wherever he goes. Reacher is hot. This is Book 9. Woops, I'll have to go back and start at the beginning!

  • A Cry in the Jungle Bar, by Robert Drewe - (Australian) Drewe is compared to Graham Greene on the back cover, and I think you will find that rings true. "The Quiet American" certainly entered my mind while reading this. Stuck in a bad situation in Southeast Asia. Relationships, personal and otherwise, falling apart. Desperateness. I fell in love with Cullen, and the ending left me worried for him... Definitely going to search out more of Drewe's books.

  • The Blood-Dimmed Tide, by Rennie Airth - An English mystery, I've been looking for Book 2 in this series for ages (read book 1 "River of Darkness" in 2000 or 2001 after buying it at Foyle's on a London trip). I want to marry a John Madden. Or a slightly less haunted John Madden.

  • Praise, by Andrew McGahan - (Australian) Disgruntled 20-somethings, mucking about in Brisbane. Disillusioned. Completely unambitious. Goal = survival? At most? Really well written...but I got a little bored with it. It's hard to read a book about someone so determined to go NOWHERE and be NOTHING. Not for the faint of heart, lots of sex and drugs and mistakes and bad judgement. But well written enough that I am interested in checking out more McGahan. Maybe with a more inspired subject/narrator.

    -You act decently enough towards the people you care about, sometimes, but you don't tell them anything.
    -Speech is such a definite thing.
    -Maybe it's a matter of sincerity. I'm never that certain of anything I feel about a person, and talking about it simplifies it all so brutally. It's easier to keep quiet. To act what you feel. Actions are softer. They can be interpreted in lots of different ways, and emotions
    should be interpreted in lots of different ways.

Post Australia:

  • Killing Floor, by Lee Child - Book 1 in the previously mentioned Jack Reacher mysteries. He's hot.

  • Johnno, by David Malouf - (Australian) Another beautifully lyrical book from Malouf. A bildungsroman with the tinges of regret and "what if"s we all look back with. So full of Brisbane you feel you could find your way around it reading the book. A boy's young adolation of a peer evolves through his life. Lovely.

  • Die Trying, by Lee Child - Book 2 in the Reacher series. I need the fighting skills this guy has. You know, just in case!

  • Shadowboxing, by Tony Birch - (Australian) Short stories based in Melbourne. In Fitzroy! Hey, I've been there! All really "one story" but with chronological leaps. Poverty, abuse, hunger, worry. Working class, '60s Melbourne, rapidly changing. A very fast read, but very poignant.

  • Magic or Madness, by Justine Larbalestier - (Australian) Young adult fantasy recommended to me by Marrije (thanks, Lady!!! Now I have to find Book 2!!!). A young girl who's been living on the run, in the bush, around the country, is forced by her mother's descent into madness to find out who exactly she really is. Also some neat stuff in the afterwood about Camperdown Cemetery, which I think both Alison and Clare live near.

    And I must add, it's hilarious to see in a book evidence of the Australian love of the "ie" ending: the Botanical Gardens are referred to as the Tannie Gardens! Also good to know that "chunder" means "puke".

And what to read next? I think I will stick with my big pile o' Aussies; perhaps "Lies I Told About a Girl" by Anson Cameron, or "The Service of Clouds" by Delia Falconer, set in the blue mountains in 1907... or both! Or one of my other purchases! We'll see... More SOONER than later...I hope!

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February 28, 2006

My inability to keep this page updated is comical, especially considering the lack of activity in the rest of my life. I guess I really am THAT lazy. So here is a runthrough of what I've read so far this year.

  • Acts of Faith, by Philip Caputo - This was a loaner from Dad to start the year. Intense. A very "current" book, I don't think the situation in Africa has changed much since it was published - and obviously can be read as a microcosm of aid organizations and the intricacies of working with them, both good and bad, worldwide. This really makes you ponder your own view of things. At what point does "helping" turn into "hurting"? And vice versa? When can you (or when would you) excuse morally questionable actions based on their (presumably) morally superior outcomes? And on a completely side note, isn't it interesting how many really good writers came out of Vietnam? Some characters here I really really liked. Definitely a book you find yourself getting wrapped up in. I've read other Caputo; I do generally find him very compelling.

    She and Douglas were alike in many ways; so American in their narcissism, in their self-righteousness, in their blindness to their inner natures, in their impulse to remake the world and reinvent themselves, never realizing that the world wishes to remain as it is and that oneself is not as malleable as one likes to think.

    The following jumped out at me, because I'd just read about this same phenomenon in a K.C. Cole science book. Crazy. True? Fitzhugh had been like the frog immersed in water that is slowly heated; adjusting its body temperature to an ever-more-lethal environment, it is insensible to the danger it is in and boils to death.

  • Cherry Ames, Flight Nurse, by Helen Wells (reread) - Nostalgia still taking over. I reread a few of these from my mom's copies while I was home. Then I ebayed almost an entire set. Crazy, I know. They're somewhat hilarious books, written in a very pedantic tone. But I can't help myself. I love Cherry Ames.

  • Cherry Ames, Veterans' Nurse, by Helen Wells (reread) - And another.

  • Here Kitty Kitty, by Jardine Libaire - My cousin pawning her library books off on me again, I recommend it, it's a very convenient way to use the library! Marketed as chick lit, this was not what you'd expect. Heroine is an alcoholic drug addict spiraling downward, also a painter and everything in the book is described in very lush, tactile terms, like running your hand across a canvas thick with paint. I enjoyed it. And it doesn't have the end I was expecting. But maybe you would be? Some nice moments about creation, about self control, about willpower. About urgency, desire and lust as well.

    Painting doesn't exactly answer my questions, as I thought it would. One painting doesn't suddenly expose the meaning of life. But the process of painting turns doubt inside out. Puts me in a new place, closer to the world. Fortifies my courage. Reminds me that doubt and faith are two sides of the same mystery.

  • The Summer of Ordinary Ways, by Nicole Lea Helget - An xmas gift from my friend KC, to remind me of my years in small-town Minnesota. This is reminiscent of Haven Kimmel's memoirs. Girl growing up in small town, struggling with the confines of every person around her knowing every detail of her life, and her mother's life, and her grandmother's, and her entire family's. Helgett, however, has it a lot worse off than Kimmel; her family is all kinds of fucked up. Reminded me of Alexandra Fuller's "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight" as well. Where she's sometimes so brutally honest about her mom's behavior (or dad's, or someone else's) that it's almost too painful to read and extremely painful to think "What if I were the person she's writing about?" If you liked Kimmel, or Fuller, I'd highly recommend this. I'm looking forward to her next book.

    You tell her secrets you've never told anyone else before. She's quiet for a moment, then says, that's life. This is life. It's miserable. She uses the secrets you told her to convince the rest of your family you're crazy and not to be believed or trusted or spoken to.

  • The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion - Do not read this book if you are the least bit emotional, say, pregnant. Or PMSing. Or sad. Or missing someone who's gone now. Or.... Fuck, I'm so lying. Read it. It will make you cry. It will make you miss that person even more, like the hole they left behind has just been ripped three times its size. But it's soooooo good.

    Unlike say the C.S. Lewis book on grief ("A Grief Observed"), or the Madeleine L'Engle book written about her husband dying (of cancer if I remember correctly - I think it's called "Two Part Invention") - this is NOT a book (like those) that works through and helps one figure out "how" to deal with "it", or explores faith, or tries to figure out how one can have faith in a time like this. It is not calm or contemplative. It does not soothe. This book is "This is happening. I am not dealing with it." Those books, while excellent, address a different part of grief: when grief is easing a little, when one can think about it without gasping for air, when one is able to accept a little what happened. THIS book is deep down in it: this is happening and what is happening and I can't stop it happening and I don't know what to do but I do things and this is what I did...

    This book made me cry at home, on the El, on the bus, on LaSalle Street (yes, I couldn't stop reading it even when I had to walk somewhere), at my desk at work, and in bed when I reread the really painful parts. It must have hurt a lot to write. It hurts to read. It's soooooo good.

    I did the ritual. I did it all. I did St. John the Divine, I did the chant in Latin, I did the Catholic priest and the Episcopal priest, I did "For a thousands years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past"* and I did "In paradisum deducant angeli." And it still didn't bring him back.

    I did not believe in the resurrection of the body but I still believed that given the right circumstances he would come back.

    *A thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone...

  • Cherry Ames, Private Duty Nurse, by Helen Wells (reread) - Yup, still reading them.

  • The Thin Place, by Kathryn Davis If you read Bookslut, you've already heard about this. It's really a magical book and I really loved it. So many different people's voices are heard, and all ring true. So many different takes on the same events. So many forces at play in this world, good and bad. So many ways things could go. I expect this will win a lot of awards this year. I suggest you read it.

    Both these quotes oddly are from an old soul in the book, but she is just one small part of it.

    One minute you were a young woman with your wholfe life ahead of you, and the next minute all you really wanted was to be left alone to get some sleep.[Ain't that the truth!]

    ...she began to sob the way she had when she was a young girl and her heart was broken, the deep sobs of youth that well up out of the apparently bottomless black pit of what passes for utter hopelessness but which is nothing - nothing - compared with the dead hope of old age.

  • The Aquitaine Progression, by Robert Ludlum (reread) - I got stuck in LaGuardia for over six hours. I read this book. I had read it long ago. I still loved every minute of it. There is no one quite like Ludlum, I don't believe there ever will be.

  • Cherry Ames, Visiting Nurse, by Helen Wells (reread) - And another.

  • The Liberated Bride, by A.B. Yehoshua - Another loaner from Dad. This is one of those "middle aged man, steeped in academia, disgruntled with his life, some things go wrong, some things tempt him, the week seems to spiral downward..." books I can so often be found reading, although set in the Israel, not a place you have often found me reading about. He is described online as "an Israeli Faulkner" and you will find that there are stories within stories in this book. Father-son relationships, husband-wife relationships, Israeli-Arab relationships. Many tensions at play. I thought it was a pretty good book. But I was disappointed in the ending (Dad, I know you're not reading this, but I agree with you). It just. Kind of. Ends. Not much resolution. And several things that happen near the end that presumably (based on the events that came before them) would have caused at least some kind of uproar just seem to fizzle. Maybe he got tired of telling this story? I don't know. I enjoyed a lot of it, until that point. I will definitely be checking out more of his stuff.
Wow, I really didn't expect all THAT pouring out. Just two more things to tell you before I take my cupcake-and-girl-scout-cookie-eating fat ass to the gym.

1) 2005's Last Hurrah: Right as the year ended, I finished the first book of what has commonly been known in English as "Remembrance of Things Past", the book usually known as "Swann's Way" but "The Way by Swann's" in this translation. Yes, Proust. I'm reading the new translations published by Penguin UK in 2002 or so (they've been released here now as well but it was a UK effort). I thought this first book (at least) was quite lyrical, although my Dad has since read a really bad review of these translations. A different person did each book - I guess we'll see. My French is nowhere near being up to Proust so this'll have to do. My main thought after reading this: Hellooooo why do people put Proust and Joyce in the same henbasket? This is nothing like reading Joyce. This is a crystal clear novel compared to what even fans like myself have to admit is a pretty convoluted Ulysses. And compared to Finnegan's Wake? Man, people are nut-so. [side note: oh cool, just found 20 more 37-cent stamps stuck in this book. NO WONDER I CAN NEVER FIND ANYTHING. And good lord, I'll have to go buy more of those 2-cent fuckers.] There were some really neat images in this book - presumably making it through translation OK - and lots to enjoy. There is also lots to be totally irritated with (in the way you're meant to). Stupid Swann. Just want to slap him over his obsession with Odette! Moron! Boys are [OK fine "can be"] soooo stupid! See, it's reiterated everywhere you go, everything you read, everything you hear. Stupid!

Then I got the most appropriate Christmas present from my cousin: the French COMIC BOOK version of Swann's way ("Combray"). So much fun! It's like Tintin! But it's Proust! La bande-desinee de Proust! And in a neat twist, turns out my Dad has the comic book version they did in English! My French still isn't quite up to the comic book version (a bit more advanced than Tintin) but I can get the gist allright. So much fun!

Now on to Book 2. One of my "reading plans" for 2006 is to finish off this six-book bonanza. We'll see as we are already two months in and I've yet to get back to it...

2) What I'm Reading Now: I mean, you do want to know, right? I'm reading The Accidental by Ali Smith. Because other than "The Thin Place" (scroll up), this is the book I've heard the most hype about this year and I so hate to be out of the loop when it comes to award time. I didn't like the first bit (from the daughter's point of view) that much, but then it switched to the son and really started to pick up, and then to Michael and....and yeah I'm pretty sucked into it now. We'll see how I feel at the end!!

I believe both The Accidental and The Thin Place were selected as first-round teams for the Morning News' Tournament of Books which they're running for the second year. It's a March Madness Tournament of Books and I quite enjoyed reading it last year and seeing if I agreed with the judges. (Google it, dudes, I'm too lazy for linkage!) After this, I've got another (old) A.L. Kennedy waiting in the wings, Nicole Krauss' first novel, a couple loaners from Dad to whip through, and then... oh yeah there's quite the mighty pile of books waiting on me. Man, I gotta go! I've got things to read!!!!

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January 30, 2006

Well, hello there. Since I pathetically did not manage to post since November, I'm declaring a move on into 2006 and done! to 2005...

Now - moving on. I have posted an entire page on my Best Ofs for 2005.

And recently on Snip, I posted about some recent purchases.

I'll be back in a week or so with actual content about things I've read so far in 2006, with maybe a few nods back to the final reads of 2005 if I have time.

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November 15, 2005

So I'm starting to get that feeling that if I don't get caught up over here, I'm going to fall so far behind there'll be no catching up. So this is going to be a quickie!!!

  • Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear - the first of the series I started with book 2, a common Duff mishap. Winspear's built up a pretty neat background for Maisie. Those of you who enjoy the Mary Russell series (Laurie R. King) will probably like this. A neat little mystery.

  • On Beauty, by Zadie Smith - I really, really liked "White Teeth." I loved "The Autograph Man." This book, however, I did not love. The main characters were all the weakest and the ones I wanted the least to do with. The only other Smith I've read without liking (a short story, maybe in the New Yorker?) also had a female character as a lead (or one of the leads). Interesting - I've heard her criticized for having male leads in the earlier books. Frankly, I think she writes them a lot better, I don't find the females compelling and sometimes I found them downright maddening. There were little tidbits I liked but overall I was pretty disappointed. And sad, because I was really looking forward to a new Zadie Smith. Maybe I will go back and read one of the old ones again. My dad agreed with me on a bunch of specifics about it, but in general he did like it more than I did. Email me if you want to discuss more particulars.

  • A Gentleman's Game, by Greg Rucka - I've read most of the Atticus Kodiak novels, but I had not read the graphic novels this book had as its inspiration. Fun, fierce woman detective. I always love the "official government spy forced to go rogue" stories.

  • Nobody's Warriors, by Maurice Shadbolt - One of those bumbling soldier novels. American Kimball Bent goes AWOL from the British Army, winds up a warrior in a Maori tribe as the New Zealanders try to fight off the empire. Really enjoyable. Bent is an actual historical figure, brought to life here. Fun.

  • Mothers & Other Monsters, by Maureen F. McHugh - Wow. These stories blew me away. Not so much sci fi or fantasy, as they are stories "with a fantastical element." The writing here was beautiful. Evocative. Haunting. Intense. I don't want to talk about particulars - I don't want to give anything away! There wasn't a single story I didn't feel immediately drawn into and compelled by. Definitely a must-read!!

  • Knife of Dreams (Wheel of Time Book 11), by Robert Jordan - If you're not a Wheel of Time fan, keep moving. I loved the first five books of this series, big thick whoppers filled with dozens of characters and covering spans of time. But as the series has gone on, each new book seems to cover only a few days, maybe a week, and the action is hardly advancing. So, yes, I enjoyed reading another "chapter" in this story, but not much new happened, and if it's going to be 12, then there's only one book left to tie up a lot of loose ends.

  • Digital Fortress, by Dan Brown - blech. Airport reading. 'nuff said.

  • (half of) Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow - With Bellow on many, many people's top 100 lists, I felt I should at least try something. He's also a Chicago commodity and you know I'm trying to embrace my new city. Eventually, however, I really felt like I was slogging through this one, having to force myself to keep reading. So I stopped. It's the usual male protagonist in mid-life crisis, but when I think back, the novels of that type that I have enjoyed have tended to be based more in academia - professors, failed novelists, and the like. Not rugged roughnecks like Henderson. So I thought some of it was really funny. But some of it felt too obvious or too forced and I just wasn't loving it enough to keep going.

  • Willful Creatures, by Aimee Bender - Similar to the McHugh stories, in that each has one fantastical element, while otherwise set very much in the here and now. But unlike McHugh, where the focus was on the character and the stories, the characters in this book are much flatter (but purposely so - some don't even have names), and much more controlled by the element, whether it be that each finger on their hand is a key that they must find the doors for, or that their child is born with an iron for a head. So a very different take on the fantastical, and on the short story. Some really neat moments, neat language moments. Short and sweet, but several times breathtaking.

  • The House of Sleep, by Jonathan Coe - Coe seems to have two styles. There's the Rotter's Club/Closed Circle style, and then the Winshaw Legacy style which is similar, but has a creepier, scary, twisted side. The House of Sleep is in the latter style. Very spooky. Psychologically disturbing. Equally as well written as the books on the Rotter's kids, but not comforting, or comfortable. He's amazing. I'm so glad I (FINALLY) found out about him last year.

  • Silent Bob Speaks, the Collected Writings of Kevin Smith - My dad and Amy Fong = Jay and Silent Bob's two biggest fans. This was exactly what you'd expect. Swearing & sweetness, Ben Affleck adoration (the #1 truly unexplainable thing about Kevin Smith, who otherwise is a cool cat). The Affleck fan club, and the fact that "Jersey Girl" was by far the worst movie he's ever made, yet he can't see it, are the only two things I really just had to shake my head over with this one. Otherwise - what you'd expect. Fun. Fast. Holy cow, is the print big. I read almost the entire thing in one bath!

  • Burr, by Gore Vidal - This is part of Vidal's "Narratives of Empire" series - all novels dealing with the history & forming of America. Burr was Vice President under Jefferson...until he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Reading this was like sitting down for a conversation with someone who knows ALL the Washington gossip...of another time. Vidal's chatty, conversational tone and present (yet unobtrusive) narrator just suck you right in. If you like historical fiction, and in many ways this is even historically accurate, you may want to try it! I think I'm going to read through all of these now as one of my ongoing projects...

  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee - One of the curious things in the movie Capote was his close friendship with Harper Lee. She traveled to the scene of the murders with him and basically acted as his confidante/secretary as he did his research. He sometimes apparently claimed to people that HE wrote Mockingbird but I don't believe it for a minute. With an ego like that, I find it highly doubtful he would willingly let someone else put their name on a book of his. (And that's beside the fact that this book was clearly not in his tone.) So, Harper Lee won the Pulitzer for this book. Damn, did she ever deserve it. Beautifully written. Some wonderful explorations of relationships. Having (FINALLY) read it, you can clearly see its influence on soooo many other books and movies. And it has Scout! What a great character!!! (And the namesake, FYI, of one of Bruce & Demi's kids. One of their other kids is named Rumer after Rumer Godden -- you may remember me reading a few of her novels over the past two years -- NOT after the fact that there were many "rumors" about them when they first together as one asinine tabloid suggested recently. Do your factchecking, morons! The reason for the name is well known!)

  • Birthmarks, by Sarah Dunant - Maureen suggested we read Dunant's recent novel "The Birth of Venus" last year (Maureen! Where are you, girl!?), but for some reason, it just didn't appeal to me. This one, however, grabbed me right off the blurb. Not sure if it was the ballet angle, the female PI, or what. A very neat mystery, I'll have to check out the next two in the series.

There you go - you're all caught up! But what am I reading now? Why, I'm reading Proust, don't you know? I'm reading the new Penguin translations that came out last year, with Chris Prendergrast as the general editor. Thus it is The Way by Swann's (rather than Swann's Way) that is my current obsession. Obviously, since I am reading in translation, there is a small degree of feeling you may be missing things, but this is a beautiful translation (as far as I can tell!) and I'm pretty swept away by it so far. My dad, and Edmund Wilson, both say Book 2 is the killer. If you can get through that one, you're good as gold. Not sure if I will try to plow straight through these, or alternate them with the Vidal empire books. But this is where I am for now, walking the country lanes of Combray with Marcel...

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October 19, 2005

Just a quick post. This is what I've read since last time, and I'll try to find time over the weekend to talk about them briefly:

  • Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear
  • On Beauty, by Zadie Smith
  • A Gentleman's Game, by Greg Rucka
  • Nobody's Warriors, by Maurice Shadbolt
  • Mothers & Other Monsters, by Maureen F. McHugh
  • Knife of Dreams (Wheel of Time Book 11), by Robert Jordan
  • Digital Fortress, by Dan Brown (blech. airport reading. 'nuff said.)
And currently I'm sometimes laughing/sometimes slogging my way through Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow, and have some Aimee Bender stories waiting on the backburner... More soon.

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September 13, 2005

Lots of stress going on chez Duff. What do I do when I'm stressed? Say it together, now, people...I read.

  • The Dreams, by Naguib Mahfouz Tiny short stories. Surreal. Very different than the earlier fiction of his I've read (back in the day). Spooky. Felt like Borges. Or Cortazar. Any one of these could be developed into something longer. Almost makes them even spookier that they're not. That they just...end.

  • The Blackbird Papers, by Ian Smith Maybe some of you know who this author is - apparently he's a doctor who is sometimes on "The View" ? Whatever. I picked this up because the blurb intrigued me. A mystery novel complete with dysfunctional family relationships, potentially racially motivated crimes, and small-town secrets. Pretty enjoyable.

  • Astonishing X-Men: gifted, by Joss Whedon Listing this as a book read so Kristin doesn't yell at me for segregating out the graphic novels. Nice art. Haven't been into the X-Men much before so wasn't really sure about some of the history hinted at.

  • Here is Where We Meet, by John Berger This book felt uneven to me. I wasn't sure I really ever let myself go with it. In some chapters, the author is meeting up with dead friends/relatives/etc. (and I could not stop "I see dead people..." from echoing in my head. Grrrr.). Those were the bits I enjoyed the most. You can either be fearless, or you can be free, you can't be both. Not structurally a typical novel. Free form.

  • Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro Felt like I was watching a sci fi movie while reading this one. A slowly paced memoir of a freaky somewhat inhuman world I'm glad we don't live in. Contemplative. Scarily calm. Well-written. But the emotions are buried so deep, it's hard to find a place to connect with them. And in a totally superficial aside, I HATED the font this book was printed in. NOT a font conducive to reading. At all. Yuck.

  • Birds of a Feather, by Jaqueline Winspear A mystery set in the 1930s, with what must be highly improbably (if not more than highly) female detective. Sherlock Holmesian in a way, reminded me of the Mary Russell character from the Laurie R. King books. Of course I had to "accidentally" start with Book 2 as it's the one I found and 1 was nowhere on the shelves. Have it on the way from Amazon so I can see what I missed. Not that it could in any way be argued that I need to add another detective series to the bookshelves.

  • Indelible Acts, by A.L. Kennedy Really, really LOVED these stories. As with Kennedy's Paradise which I read earlier in the year and is still by far my #1 read of 2005, these stories were very alive to me. Tangible and tactile. I can taste their drinks, I can smell their fires in the background, and feel their touch on my hands. Sexy. Magnetic. Heartbreaking. Magical. The only thing that made this not as good as Paradise? That it's short stories where that's a novel. Each character I fell in love with ended too soon. Kennedy is a master. Takes my breath away every time. Can any books of hers be more highly recommended? (And to think, there are more I haven't read. Woot!)

After that flurry, I TRIED to read "Wicked by Gregory Maguire. Eh, just couldn't do it. Something too nasty and mean about a couple of the characters. Just wasn't in the mood.

So instead I've taken a sideways step into nonfiction again (this has got to be a record for me, this many NonF in a year) and I'm reading Britpop! Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock, by John Harris. Pretty good so far although I fear it is going to lead to a lot of iTunes purchasing of albums lost long ago and needing to be heard again....

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August 23, 2005

Read a lot of intense things this month.

  • Sleep With Me, by Joanna Briscoe - Creepy as all get-out. Story of someone insidiously inserting themselves into other people's lives and destroying relationships. Of course, if the relationship is able to be destroyed... Very, very creepy and intense. Bonus = learned some new French phrases. Early on, before the seductress begins wielding her power, one character muses: At times like that I thought life was simple: that having a person of your own, holding you, was the best thing in the world.

  • The Ha-Ha, by Dave King - Vietnam vet, somewhat disabled, trying to function in a world of people who either knew him before and are confused by that, or didn't and are confused by his current state. A couple moments in this book where I really started to think "oh no, don't tell me THAT is going to happen..." A couple times it didn't (phew) but still, some very tense moments, as this guy's semi normal life really spirals into something else within the space of a summer. The world is filled with people I resent because their burdens are lighter than mine, and if I drew the line at living among them, I'd be all alone.

  • Specimen Days, by Michael Cunningham - Wowza. Mr. Cunningham is really coming into his own; first The Hours, then this. Another triptych, I wonder why he's so attracted to that format. Liked the resonances between sections. Liked the idea of trying to say one thing and having something else (albeit Whitman in this case) come out. Loved the Walt Whitman. I don't think I've read Whitman since grad school, I may have to throw Leaves of Grass into the old bag tomorrow morning. Okay. End of discussion. Your plan is to die in Denver. You could probably also get a job as a waitress, if dying doesn't work out. ... Today they'd been reminded, we'd been reminded, of something much of the rest of the world had known for centuries - that you could easily, at any moment, make your fatal mistake. That we all humped along unharmed because no one had decided to kill us that day. That we could not know, as we hurried about our business, whether we were escaping the conflagration or rushing into it.

  • Echo House, by Ward Just - The story of a political heritage in Washington, passed from father to son, to son. Hidden loyalties, public embarrassments. All at a time when the scene was shifting. Think I need to read his earlier Washington/politico-focused novel, Jack Gance. Still amazed that I've only known about Just since Christmas when he's already got so many great books out there just waiting for me to read them!! He thought that when sadness closed its fist around your heart, it would never relax until it had squeezed you dry. ... You could collect wine or old masters or butterflies or women, but your reputation would rest on your service to the nation.

  • Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson - She's only written two books of fiction and man they are both damn good. This is a letter written from a dying pastor to his very young son. Telling him his family history, his father's hopes, and dreams, and failures, and treasures. This was rough reading on the El, never knew when a tear might roll down your face. Wondering what you would say in such a letter, or what would be said in one to you. Philosophically religious. Poignantly human. You can spend forty years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. ... If you want to inform yourselves as to the nature of hell, don't hold your hand in a candle flame, just ponder the meanest, most desolate place in your soul.

  • Crossing California, by Adam Langer - Late '70s in West Rogers Park, a then-Jewish neighborhood in Chicago. Teenagers struggling to become adults. Adults struggling with the choices they made and acting like teenagers. Really really liked a couple of the characters (Jill, Muley! Loved Muley!), but could have done without some of the others. In sci-fi/fantasy series, I love books with multitudes of characters, there's bound to be someone you want to identify with. In this book, I felt like some of the characters were getting in the way. I wanted to slap them and move them out of the neighborhood! That said, there were some neat relationships, some neat films described that made you wish to see them, and a neat picture of one part of this city that doesn't even really exist in that way anymore.

Started The Dreams, by Naguib Mahfouz on the way home tonight. Spooky. Haven't read Mahfouz since...maybe 10 years ago?...I read The Cairo Trilogy. This is very different, snippets of dreams, turned into little surreal moments. Reminds me more of Borges or Cortazar than it does of his earlier fiction.

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July 26, 2005

There's been the usual flurry of reading and lack of posting, as I'm sure you've come to expect. So let's just give it a quick runthrough, shall we?

  • Travels with a Tangerine, by Tim MacKintosh-Smith Apparently if you do not exist in a world oblivious to 90% of history like I do, you would know that Ibn Battutah is not only as famous as Marco Polo in the Arab world, but actually traveled a lot MORE than Polo. So MacKintosh-Smith gets the nutty idea to try and retrace his steps on a meandering trip from Tangiers to Mecca. It took me a while to get into this book, I'm not sure why. It took me forever to read the first few chapters. But eventually I succumbed and then it sped along. This book exemplifies one of the main reasons I read. It took me somewhere I will likely never go, and let me picture this place in my mind, without imposing either a) the actual on my mind or b) some filmmaker's view of the actual. Traveling without the detritus of travel, it's quite a pleasant thing. This book clearly took a TON of research, both before the trip, and afterward to fully describe where he'd been.

  • The Closed Circle, by Jonathan Coe - I was very, very, VERY excited to finally see the promised sequel to The Rotter's Club which I read last year, along with another Coe, The Winshaw Legacy. Loved following up the characters from the last book. Loved the stories he spun for them. Loved it, loved it, loved it. Lots of twists and turns I, for one, wasn't expecting. A fulfilling sequel.

  • Wish You Were Here, by Stewart O'Nan - The perfect summer novel - after a loss, a family gathers for their last summer at the lake cottage. Almost every character is poised on the brink of serious change, and in many ways this one week is the last moment they have before their decisions are made. Family drama, mingled with memories specific to time and place. Really enjoyed it. Do I need to look up more of the O'Nan ouvre? Or will this be a one-time stop over? Who can really say...

  • The Wonder Spot, by Melissa Bank - The new collection of stories from the author of A Girl's Guide..., the chick lit world has been all abuzz waiting for this one. I thought some of it was good. But I couldn't see the point to using a short story format when it was all about one girl. Why not just a novel? The stories seemed (to me) to jump all over the time continuum so sometimes you weren't sure whether the relationship you were reading about now came after or before the previous one. Some of the stories were a lot stronger than others, but I don't think it would have been as noticeable in novel form, when the ebb and the flow mixed together is what ultimately makes it work. Some nice moments. A nice description: They hardly touched each other in front of other people. Their kisses hello or good-bye didn't say, Sex. But there was something private between them, enviably private. They were a couple in a way that didn't exclude anyone but seemed superior to every other relationship in the room.

  • Dragon's Winter, by Elizabeth A. Lynn (reread) - Lynn wrote my all-time favorite fantasy series The Chronicles of Tornor back in the mid- to late-70s. FINALLY began a new one just a couple years ago. When book 2 came out, I gave this one a quick reread to make sure I kept myself centered as to which series I was reading (since I still know the previous one so well!).

  • Dragon's Treasure, by Elizabeth A. Lynn - Book 2 in the series. I think Lynn is an amazing writer. Her images and myths are so well wound into her storylines. She presents both hetero- and homosexual relationships so believably. She writes about singers/songs in such a way you can almost hear them. If you are a fantasy fan AT ALL, you should know her.

  • Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak - For some reason, I've had Omar Shariff on my mind. Then I couldn't remember whether I'd actually read this book or not. I know I didn't read it that summer in NY when I pushed my way through a lot of the big rooskie classics. And I thought maybe reading about freezing snow in Russia would help lighten the Chicago heat load a little. It may have helped a couple days, but once it gets to 110, it's beyond literary reach! This was a pretty intense read. Similar to how Ginger felt about her latest read, not only did this book offer the storyline, but it painted a picture of the Russian Revolution. Some of it was difficult to go with. You really have to be willing to drop your guard for love at first sight, love unexpressed yet somehow known?, things like that when you're reading Zhivago. I also wondered whether it would have benefited from a better translation. The summer when I read almost nothing but Russians was jumpstarted by the release of some new translations by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which are now considered the standard by which others should be judged. They've done quite a few, maybe if this one makes their list, I'll read it again. Despite the lack of lyricism in the translation, there was some intense imagery in this book and I was very happy to have finally read it.

  • Why Are We at War?, by Norman Mailer - Some people think Mailer's just an old blowhard. I think he's a literary genius. This book is clear, concise and compelling. It's in big print so even the morons would be able to get through it quickly although they wouldn't be able to understand the arguments therein. Insightful and well-researched. Some of the stuff happening now goes back to a defense department draft that got leaked written by Paul Wolofwitz (then undersecretary for policy - now deputy defense secretary under that MFing joke Rumsfeld) under Dick Cheney (then defense secretary, now moronic VP) under Papa Bush, back in the day. Mailer's interpretation of Bush's motives is speculative, but compelling. Read it. Here's a great quote: If I were George W. Bush's karmic defense attorney, I would argue that his best chance to avoid conviction as a purveyor of false morality would be to pray for a hung jury in the afterworld. Indeed.
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June 21, 2005

I spent A LOT of time in airports the other weekend. Let's put it this way, flight from Chicago to Minneapolis, then Minneapolis to Duluth. Same on the way back. AT LEAST two hours delay. On every flight. In every direction. That's a LOT of reading time for someone like me, particularly when you're too scatterbrained in airports to venture much out of genre fiction. Plenty of mysteries don't require that much time to absorb. Plus, you know me, when I've got NOTHING I am able to do BUT read, dude, I READ. I almost missed one of my two-hour delayed flights, I was so focused on my book!

  • Prophecy, by Elizabeth Haydon - the 2nd book of the fantasy trilogy I talked about in my last post. Loved this book as well. Think she picked very unusual main characters, love all the 'naming' stuff. Loved the emphasis on outward appearance not being the only thing that can make someone unbearably attractive to you. Really enjoyed.

  • Destiny, by Elizabeth Haydon - see above. This is the 3rd book of the trilogy - otherwise I feel pretty much exactly the same about it!!!

  • Across the Nightingale Floor, by Lian Hearn - And here begins the airport reading. First book in a series that I've heard so many intense recommendations of in the past. I liked it. It didn't jump to "top of my fantasy list EVER" but it was certainly worth reading. It felt very much like a historical fiction novel set in medieval Japan - just every once in a while a fantasy element crept in.

  • The Falls, by Ian Rankin - Still at the airport. Ah, Rebus. The hard-drinkin', hard-livin' Scottish detective. Haven't read one in a while, after voraciously whipping through the first bunch of the series. Really liked the puzzles in this novel.

  • Nam-A-Rama, by Phillip Jennings - Finished...at the airport. You may remember I've been "reading" this one for a while. I had gotten bogged down in this weird chapter that was somewhat told from the sidekick's point of view, instead of the main guy. Finally I barreled through that, and afterward began to enjoy the novel much more again. Thought it was a decent book, interesting twist on your typical Vietnam literature, although were I to give someone a list of "must-read war books" I'm not sure this would be on it.

  • Sidetracked, by Henning Mankell - Still in...an airport. First read Mankell in Louise's house in France - needed some late night reading!! Wallander is a depressed Rebus, who doesn't drink as much, but seems just as lost in his own life. The mystery here was really neat, and really gives you a different feel for Sweden than the "country of neutrality" one you get if you live in America and know almost nothing about it!!

  • Bangkok 8, by John Burdett - Started in an airport, although thankfully this one lasted until I got home. Certainly the most unusual detective story of this batch. Main character, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, is a young, somewhat kooky, Buddhist policeman, one of the few not-on-the-take cops in all of Bangkok. His mom's a former prostitute, his partner (and hetero soulmate) is killed in the first few moments of the book, and he winds up paired with a female FBI agent in his search to both revenge the death and solve the mystery of the marine sergeant who died at the same time. Sonchai's Buddhism mixed with his actual talent at policing creates a really intriguing mix, you're never sure where he's going to go next. Here's a quote from the Amazon page: Sonchai's fatalism, wry humor and dogged determination-his ability to be both vulnerable and strong-make him one of the more memorable characters in recent novel-length fiction. Readers expecting a traditional mystery structure would be advised to look elsewhere, but those who want something new will find Burdett's novel an intriguing, fresh take on noir. This was a really neat book, and there's a book 2 out in hardback right now (Bangkok Tattoo) that I am very close to ordering...
So...three fantasy books, three detective stories, and one Vietnam escapade. An unusual couple weeks, but satisfying. Helped me through some "terminal" time.

Still plowing through Travels with a Tangerine (Tim Mackintosh-Smith trails Ibn Battutah), which is moving a LOT faster now than it was in the beginning (a little dry, but maybe I just had to get used to his tone. And I've got big plans for when I finish that...

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June 2, 2005

So May was a big reading month here at Chez Duff. And only the usual pure Duff laziness has kept me from getting some comments up here as I actually started this post a week or so ago. Ah, the joys of laziness, being indulged by two weeks at home!!!

So let's see... First I finished The Lives of the Muses, by Francine Prose, which was a great book. A scholarly idea pursued in a conversational tone, this book reminded me of things I'd long forgotten (details regarding Alice in Wonderland, moments in the Yoko/John relationship) and of artists I've got to spend some time exploring (Lee Miller's photographs, Suzanne Farrell's Balanchine documentary). A very enjoyable read. I liked this better than I've liked either of the two Prose novels that I read.

Back to this year's Shakespeare review, Hamlet was next up. One of the joys to me, Claudia, in reading Shakespeare is the reminder of all the little phrases we use in our daily lives that originated with him. Sure, there are the big ones that no one says except when they are TRYING to bring up Shakespeare: someone throws "to be or not to be" into a conversation and everyone chuckles "ah, yes, Shakespeare." But there are so many other common idioms that we don't think to attribute. I turn a page in Hamlet, and oh there's one: The cat will mew and dog will have his day.

Another reason Shakespeare is so potent, not just his omniprescence in common English phrases to this day, but the fact that his plays are written in verse. Thus, similar to the psalms or other ancient breviaries, one finds what I think of as "advice couplets", little moments of truth, written in rhythm that will make them stick in your head: "Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,/Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel." Sounds like a good idea, no? One I generally put into practice. (Of course with friends who have proved to be false, I practice the steel in the opposite direction!!).

After that little dip into the Bard, I moved on to a very goofy book The Preservationist, by David Maine. A modern day telling of Noah's Arc, for some reason I didn't think I was going to be able to get into it. Well, I was wrong. Written from the viewpoints of all involved, the sons, their wives, Noah (who is a very, very crusty old fart), this book had some really funny moments. Noe shifts his bony rear end. As one of his daughters-in-law tell us: The problem with people who think that God will provide, is that they think God will provide. (Or, if you ask Ursula, it may be because they're referring to God rather than GOD and he's a little pissed off!!!)

I got a call from my pops recommending a mystery novel. When my pops, who generally reads very dense philosophy, history, and literature, deigns to drop down into mystery reading, you know it's going to be a good one. Monkeewrench, by P.J. Tracy. Wow. Scary, intense, puzzling...Crazy good. Loved it, loved it, loved it. LOTS of main characters, which if written badly is a nightmare, but if written well is such a bonus: you're sure to find at least ONE you want to keep reading about. Loved it so much in fact, I immediately ran to the bookstore and read the two (so far) follow-ups (even stooping to buying a mystery in hardback!!): Live Bait and Dead Run. They're written by a mother-daughter team and all take place in the heart of the Midwest - Minnesota, Wisconsin, etc. So there's always a mix of "city" (Mpls.) and "country" detectives. And these are not your standard yokel okels. Wow. Now how long will it take them to put out a new one?!? Do they know I'm waiting!?!?!?!

Getting sucked into the mystery section of the bookstore can be a dangerous place. You know how I love espionage, don't you? The Company of Strangers, by Robert Wilson filled that need this month. A love story betwixt a sort-of Nazi and a sort-of English spy. Murders, secret letters, unknowns. Very LeCarre. Sad. Good enough that I bought another Wilson (the one I think I had heard of first, not connected to this one except by author) and have it waiting in the wings.

So apparently May was a month of mystery as next up I read The James Joyce Murders, by Amanda Cross. As usual, in my dorkiness, I was unaware that this is part of an ongoing series about English professor Kate Fanslaw so I've now read a book somewhere in the middle. Very short and succinct. Your standard "we're all out in a house in the country and uh oh! Somebody got murdered." Liked it. Didn't realize it was taking place in New York at first as it seemed very British to me. Very Agatha Christie.

After that, I felt I'd had enough mysteries for a while and returned to "non-genre" fiction where I am more likely to be found. And I read a great, great book that has immediately leapfrogged itself onto my ongoing "best of 2005" list: The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss. Wow. Separate stories that are eventually interconnected, we hear the musings of Leo Gursky, now an old, old lonely man, who grew up in Poland, watched his true love move to the US, wrote a book about her, and then saw his village destroyed by the Nazis; and we read about Alma, a teenager who worries about her little religion-obsessed brother, her single mom, and how to fix their lives. This book had lots of really neat stuff about the process of writing:

Where he saw a page of words, his friends saw the field of hesitations, black holes, and possibilities between the words. Where his friend saw dappled light, the felicity of flight, the sadness of gravity, he saw the solid form of a common sparrow. Litvinoff's life was defined by a delight in the weight of the real; his friend's by a rejection of reality, with its army of flat-footed facts.

Neat stuff about relationships, about the pains of being alone/lonely and/or old/young. Loneliness: there is no organ that can take it all.

I really, really, really didn't want this book to end. But end it did, and life had to go on. Too shattered to return to fiction and have the next book ruined by the power of this one, instead I moved into the (rare for me, but suddenly popping up a lot this year isn't it?!?!) non-fiction arena and read Wine & War, The French, the Nazis and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure, by Don & Petie Kladstrup. I think the title pretty much tells you what you need to know. Really enjoyable, little bits of detective work, interviews with survivors of the wine houses, information about wines... Thought it was a little dry at first, but it definitely picks up speed if you keep going.

Back to fiction. I had bought Marilynne Robinson's latest (Gilead) but not read it yet, when my cousin handed me her library copy of Housekeeping, which Robinson published 20 years earlier. Living in big cities for the last 20 years, I do spend time thinking randomly about things like "what series of events could cause me to become homeless?" (Too much time on my hands?) This book tells the story of two sisters who lose their mother, then their grandmother, and wind up living with their sometimes-transient aunt. One resists, one doesn't. Small-town, on the edge of a Lake, with a train running through...this could SO be a book about Lake Bronson...

Writing to Logan about fantasy reminded me that I haven't read any lately. So I spent a little time browsing in the bookstore and came home with Rhapsody, by Elizabeth Haydon. And whipped right through that baby and have already started the next book in the series!! Some very unusual main characters. Takes place in a time of legends and stories. Really enjoying it. Like how fantasy often picks up on "Naming", which if you are religious in any deep dark part of yourself, you've probably spent some time thinking about.

Oddly, being that I am usually a one-book woman, I now find myself with bookmarks in FOUR books. How the hell did that happen? I blame vacation. Nevertheless, I am now reading: Prophecy (book 2 of the Haydon series), As You Like It (Shakespeare, doh!, another re-read), Travels with a Tangerine (Tim Mackintosh-Smith trails Ibn Battutah) and Nam-a-rama (by Phillip Jennings, which you may remember I got drawn back to the bookstore by this one, but oddly am having a hard time really getting sucked into it). Since I'm so fickle these days, I better go get reading before I accidentally open a new book! Later, gators!

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April 24, 2005

Been readin' up a storm.

  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell Liked this book a lot. Read "Ghostwritten" last year and it felt very uneven to me. In this book, he's smoothed out the edges. It still leaps, by chapter, to a different time/character/etc. However in this book, he circles back and revisits each character again in a later chapter, and he makes the connections between the stories much more explicit. I think he lives up to the hype here.

  • Dreamer, by Charles Johnson Bought this after seeing Johnson speak at the UND Writers Conference with my pops. He won the National Book Award for "Middle Passage" in 1990. Really interesting guy. Has a PhD in philosophy, lots of theological/religious allusions in his writing. (Also is a Buddhist who practices martial arts.) This book is a fictional account of Martin Luther King Jr's 1966 campaign in Chicago...and gives him a "double" (stand in, doppelganger, what have you). Really well-written. Intense. Makes me both want to read more Johnson, and to read more about MLK.

  • Camp Concentration, by Thomas Disch Freaky sci fi book. Government prisoners in a secret camp are given a drug derived from syphilis. They die from it, but on the way become geniuses. Scary. Intense.

  • The Translator, by Ward Just I started 2005 with a Ward Just novel and I think I'm going to spend the year reading his "back catalog." A German living in Paris, with his American wife, eking out a living as a translator, is pulled back into the intelligence world as the cold war comes to an end. Just really has an artist's eye, Paris comes alive in the book, as does the German countryside.

  • Blue Hour, by Carolyn Forche (poetry) Saw Forche read at the writer's conference as well. I first read Forche poetry in high school so she's been around a long time although she's only published four volumes. The centerpiece of this book is a 42 page alphabet-indexed poem imitiating Gnostic abecedarian hymns. It's a poem of snippets, tiny moment, little images. Here are a few of my favorites, which pulled from the overall work seem to form a little poem of their own: as any backward look is fictive...born with a map of calamity in her palm...cathedral bells chiseling the winter air...if rope were writing he would have hanged himself...the stories nested, each opening to the next...the street's memory of abandoned shoes...while I lived in that other world, years went by in this one.... Forche has spent her entire adult life living in countries at war. She's got worlds of experience to draw on, and truly awe-inspiring skills with language.

  • Paradise, by A.L.Kennedy I discussed in a recent blog post how incredibly blown away I was by this book. It really took my breathe away. If you only read one book in 2005, make it this one. An alcoholic's rambling stream of conscious, as she ruins her life, and others, again and again. So intense. So well-written. Wow.

  • Sixpence House, by Paul Collins Paul Collins is a total nut. In this partcular book, he's decided to move to Wales, to Hay-on-Wye, the town of books. For this guy, getting a job in a used bookstore is like a crack addict with unending supply. The book intermingles personal anecdotes, trying to buy a house in this crazy old town, with tidbits he finds lost in the pages of forgotten books. You feel like you could win a game of really obscure trivial pursuit after this. Liked it enough that I had to order another of his for myself, and both of them for my dad. Really entertaining.

  • Saturday, by Ian McEwan This was not McEwan's best effort. Go read "Atonement" instead. This book is incredibly slowly paced. It's very formal - very cold - the reader is kept at arm's, or pole's, length from the characters. As if you were watching the events of your life happening to you from afar, rather than having them actually happen to you. It got a little better as it went along, but it's a far cry from what McEwan has shown us before.

  • A Girl Named Zippy, by Haven Kimmel Since I read both of Kimmel's novels last year, I thought it was time I read this, her memoir of growing up in small-town Indiana. Considering I spent a good portion of my childhood in an equally tiny (yup, our population was 298 the entire time I lived there!) Minnesota town, and actually lived in Indiana in my earlier childhood!, this book really rang true to me. And as an added bonus: It's hilarious!! Haven, a late baby, is told by her brother and sister that she's adopted. Rather than reassure her, her parents play along and tell her they got her from gypsies! Sounds like something my dad would do! Loved this book, looking forward to more from her. Agnes Johnson asked me first thing if my mother knew where I was, which stopped me cold, because my mother almost never knew where I was. "No, ma'am," I answered, involuntarily teling the truth. "Then go home," she said, shutting her front door.

  • The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls Two memoirs in a row, a very unusual nonfiction concentration pour moi. Walls became a fairly well-known journalist without anyone ever figuring out that at the time her parents were among New York's homeless population. Truly a story of someone rising above and making their own path. Some of it is pretty painful to read, particularly if stories of neglect, abuse, etc. make you uncomfortable. Really breaks up the myth of no poor people in America. Made me think of "Angela's Ashes" or something like that. Where at points, you just thought, "WHAT?" Man, what a sheltered pleasant childhood I led, despite being at times really quite poor (hey my parents were seniors in college when I was born! And then in grad school when I was tiny) without me really ever knowing it (not until I got older and you know, "figured things out").

  • Oracle Night, by Paul Auster My second Auster. Have really gotten a feel for his "story within a story, within a story." Unexplainable coincidences, time/space continuum jumps. However, felt this book was really, really negative. Maybe it's because I just read two books that found humor in what the casual observer could find painful or sad. Maybe because my friend Marrije wrote a book sort of "based on the ideas of Oracle Night" which I had read first, a much more positive book than this one. It does end on a good note. Somewhat. You may think. But I felt really sad after reading it.

And there you go. Now I'm reading a third non-fiction book (if you can believe that! cripes, I think that's a record) The Lives of the Muses, by Francine Prose. So far I've read the chapters on Hesther Thrale (Samuel Johnson's muse) and Alice Liddell (Doh! Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll!) and really enjoying them. Still to come: Yoko Ono (Doh! John Lennon), Suzanne Farrell (Balanchine), Lee Miller (Man Ray) and a few others. The blurb calls this book "wry and provocative." I'd have to agree.

Also rereading Hamlet (reread Macbeth late in last year, planning to do a bunch); a girl can never really have too much Shakespeare in her head, can she?

And after that I'm going to try and read this kooky book my cousin gave me for my birthday The Preservationist, by David Maine, although I have doubts whether I'll get through it... (Some sort of modern day Noah's Arc. Anyone read it? Wanna tell me what you thought?)

Till next time...

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March 23, 2005

Well, I still feel as if my reading activities so far in 2005 are moving at a glacial pace, but I have read as many books in the last month as I read combined in the first two months of the year, so maybe I'm getting back into my normal groove.

Homeland, by Sam Lipsyte was a pretty funny book. It was also crass, gross, sometimes just stupid. One of the biggest loser, druggy slackers of a high school class starts writing stream-of-conscious letters to his high school alumni board, exposing his classmates (and his own) darkest secrets, as well as the random minutiae of his daily, loser life. Really laugh out loud funny at times. Cringe-worthily (yeah, that's not a word) crass at others. Black humor. Enjoyable. But can't recommend to the thin-skinned, or easily grossed out among you.

Then the mailman came with the mail, for which he's not to blame, handed over the usual sheaf of bills, bill notice, final bill warnings. My whole life is either due or past due...Forests are falling for the burgeoning need to threaten me.

Kate Atkinson's latest book is getting all kinds of press, but I just wasn't swayed enough by the reviews to commit to it. Mariko took pity on me and sent me her debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum to read instead. Ruby Lennox tells the story of her life, beginning at her conception, and details the history of her family (for her lifetime, and the one before). Good book, yes. Well-written, yes. But...but I never totally gave in to this book. Two mother figures who were just so...WRONG (my cousin warned me that all Atkinson's books contain somewhat icky mothers). There's also one underlying plot line that I thought could have been handled much better: the narrator has forgotten something. A big thing. And every once in a while, someone almost mentions it to her. But doesn't. But it's done so heavy-handedly (to my mind) that you can pretty much figure out what it is. Except not in an effective "the reader knowing something the character doesn't" kind of way. More in a "if they're going to tell us like THAT, how is it possible that the narrator doesn't figure it out the same time we do" way. Hard to explain without giving away a major plot point. You'll know what I mean if you read it. So enjoyable, yes. Well written, yes. Would I read more by her? Probably. But don't think this one will wind up on my "best of the year". Which I'm sure is every famous author's dream. Oh to be in GirlReaction's favor! Ha ha ha ha ha...

Next I moved on to Criminals, by Margot Livesey. Read a Livesey last year ("Eva Moves the Furniture" a hand-me-down from a cousin), and then read a good review of her latest in EW, so decided to check out more of the back catalog. A very concise little story of an baby, stolen from its mother, "abandoned" by its father, rescued/kidnapped by a brother and sister whose emotional lives are already in shreds... Some of it was intriguing. Did not like, however, the "fictional inserts" (written by the sister's ex-lover, read by the brother), thought they were flat and boring. An intense little chaotic book. Very emotional. But a little uneven.

My dad loaned me a wonderful book of poetry The Devil's Tour, by Mary Karr. A slim volume of what the author herself refers to as "humanist poems" or as the blurb describes them "written for everyday readers rather than an exclusive audience -- poems that do not require an academic explication in order to be understood." Simple-seeming poems of life, death, a sick child, a lunch meeting, an affair. I thought these were really, really lovely. Beautifully written.

From the calm of Karr's poetry back to the violence of the urban landscape, I moved on to Samaritan, by Richard Price. Price wrote "Clockers" which is what most people recognize him for, as well as screenplays for movies such as "Sea of Love", "Ransom" and "The Color of Money." And I think he's a genius. Certainly high on my list of living American authors. A now fairly well-to-do New Jerseyian returns to his roots, a broken-down gritty neighborhood, where his sometimes misguided efforts to help those less fortunate (yes, he's the Samaritan) result in a near-death beating. Yet he refuses to name his attacker. The story is told in alternating chapters, before and after the beating. A childhood friend is a detective determined to figure out the truth. Great dialogue. Intense family dynamics, among several different families. Takes you deeply into the minds of very different characters. This is one of those books where I had a hard time putting it down at night to go to sleep - which is a serious problem when you sometimes have to be at work by 6 a.m. the next morning!!! Wow. This one's an award winner in my "book." And yes it's both a mystery and a detective story, but it's not that lesser quality known as the "genre" novel. This is literature at its finest.

So I hadn't quite started my next book yet, thinking I'd read another loaner from dad Lives of the Muses by Francine Prose when my favorite Bookslut blogger Michael Schaub started pimping her new novel A Changed Man as a candidate for the best of 2005. Run to the bookstore immediately, did I, and started it on the way home that night. I did think it was a really good book; I wouldn't have sped through it in 2.5 days if I hadn't! But...but I'm reserving judgement on "best of" with an inclination to say "mmmm, not quite there." It's the story of a somewhat Skinhead, who offers himself to a humanitarian organization run by an Auschwitz-survivor as an example of a changed man. It's also the story of a run-down middle-class mother who works at the foundation, welcomes him into her home, and finds herself radically changed. Well-written? Yes, definitely. Engaging? Yes. Illuminating and insightful? Well... I didn't think it went as far below the surface as Schaub clearly thought it did. I thought some of its conclusions were too pat, some of its scenarios too predictable - I expect more from Prose (Have you read "Blue Angel"? A Great Book). "A little pedestrian. She can do better." A better book than many of the many that will be published this year? Most certainly. Top book of 2005? Hmmm... I'm thinking no. But I'm also thinking you should read this one. Because it's certainly going to be on a lot of lists. And it's well-worth reading, whether it's the ultimate novel of the year for you, or not.

Tonight I went to the bookstore intending to pick up Paradise, by AL Kennedy, which is being alternately pimped by Schaub's co-Bookslut-blogger Jessa Crispin...except I somehow managed to bring every single solitary scrap of paper from my desk EXCEPT the one that I wrote the name of the book on, and no matter how long I wandered the aisles nothing could pull it from the dusty realms of my barely capable short-term memory. So maybe I'll look for that tomorrow. Or maybe I'll stay with Francine Prose for a bit longer and delve into the non-fiction Muses I meant to read last week. We shall see...

Now what are YOU reading?

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February 25, 2005

Finally finished Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson -- can ya believe it?!?! For some reason, I just did not find myself whipping through this book the way I did through Cryptonomicon (highly recommended!!), which kept me up way past my bedtime several nights in a row. I did, however, greatly enjoy this book and already have the next two in the trilogy patiently waiting in line. All kinds of crazy scientific factoids, this one really sets your mind a-whirrin'.

She Is Me, by Cathleen Schine was an OK read, but it doesn't hold a candle to her earlier book The Love Letter which was unfortunately made into one of the worst movies made in the history of the universe. This one follows a Grandmother, mother (daughter) and daughter (granddaughter), their lives buzzing around each other in the vapid LA landscape. Enjoyed it. But not a rave.

The World According to Mimi Smartypants was another quick read. Funny in bits, but nowhere near as funny as her website. Think this one was seriously edited down. Love to read Mimi both because she's a Chicago-an, and because we're only a couple degrees of separation - one of my NY buds went to college with her and roomed with one of her best friends.

Another big thick historical novel, I particularly enjoyed reading Neighboring Lives, by Thomas M. Disch and Charles Naylor so soon after reading David Lodge's new book (scroll down) as it similarly details historical fact with fictional embellishments - those hidden conversations, assignations, and meetings we wish we'd been a fly on the wall for. Where Lodge imagined Henry James, Naylor and Disch focus on the pre-Raphaelites: Rossetti, Morris, Carlyle, Holman-Hunt, among others. Greatly enjoyed it. Extremely well-written. Man, did it take me back to grad school. Got to pull some pre-Raph poetry off the shelves and walk my academic memory lane.

This Thomas Disch guy - he's some kind of crazy Renaissance man. The first book I read for him was pure sci fi - and spooky spooky sci fi at that. Now this very intensely literary, academic, imagining. Is there anything he can't write?

The Shape of Water, by Andrea Camilleri - a nice little Italian mystery, similar to the Donna Leon Bruno series. Enjoyable. I'll read him again. But very slim.

More soon! :)

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January 27, 2005

When an shockingly well-read man such as my father calls you up and says "I've got a book recommendation...but I never would have read it if I'd seen the cover!", you know you've got to sit up and take notice. Indeed.

The True and Outstanding Advenures of the Hunt Sisters, by Elisabeth Robinson is much more than the chick-lit light its cover suggests. Similar to The Wedding Season, by Darcy Cosper, which I recommended last year, people who avoid it due to its "labeling" are missing out, and people who buy it according to its labeling are likely confused by the literature hidden inside. Who would look at this pastel girly cover and imagine an epistolary novel (so rare!) about trying to make a movie of Don Quixote (with Robin Williams as Sancho and John Cleese as DQ no less! Amazing casting!), while at the same time the narrator's sister is dying of leukemia? Olivia is the smart, sarcastic, comeback-ready, daredevil kind-of girl I always strive to be. Her letters are laugh-out-loud funny, wickedly malicious, and so poignant and tender that my fellow criers be warned.

So glad this unexpected recommendation came in - really enjoyed it. And now...can you guess what I'm going to say here? You're right if you thought "Back to Quicksilver!"

Oh and p.s. and for my fellow fans of the epistolary style, here's a non-fiction recommendation for you I read years back and promptly added to everyone's Christmas gifts: Dear Exile, by Hilary Liftin and Kate Montgomery, letters written back and forth by two college roommates while one of them spends a year in Africa with the Peace Corp.

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January 24, 2005

Recently finished Author, Author, by David Lodge. What a great book! A fictional account of several years of Henry James' life - years when he was attempting to become a playwright, struggling with his muse, and trying heartily to dampen his jealousy over his friend DuMaurier's success (with the novel Trilby which features the character who defined/brought about the term Svengali but otherwise has not nearly the following of James in the 20th century).

A neat idea, and the conceit is so well carried out, it's hard to believe you're not reading an autobiography! It is making me think a James' re-read may be in order - I'll do the "big three" that James wrote while living at Lamb House: "The Ambassadors", "The Wings of the Dove" and "The Golden Bowl." I don't think I've read any James since undergrad, so I'm really looking forward to it. (Of course when I will manage to do this is completely undetermined.)

Lodge is a great "academic fiction" writer; his best books all seem to take place on campuses, in English departments, in the world of the literati. Also recommended are other Lodge books I've enjoyed: Small World, Changing Places, and Thinks. They remind me of A.S.Byatt, Richard Russo's "Straight Man" (but not quite as funny) or Michael Malone's "Foolscap."

I seem to be reading at the speed glaciers melt - that's only the second book I've finished in 2005. Kristin suggested perhaps Quicksilver is sucking all the reading energy out of me, and I think she might be right! I better get back to it!

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January 9, 2005

Did a lot of readin' while on vacation at the parents' place:

  • The Genocides by Thomas M. Disch - Very very freaky. Sci fi, man is the parasite. Spooky!
  • The Weather in Berlin, by Ward Just - Elegant, enchanting. Film director, returns to Berlin, nostalgic noir. Lovely.
  • Pagan Babies, by Elmore Leonard - Think is the first Leonard I've read. Good. Solid.
  • (sections of) Boys & Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter, by Alison Lurie - an article on Babar in the NY Review of Books spurred on this dip into Lurie's non-fiction.
  • (sections of) Don't Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children's Literature, by Alison Lurie
  • The Daughter in Law, by Diana Diamond - Genre. Trash. Not good at all.
  • California Girl, by T. Jefferson Parker - Mystery. Cool.
  • The New York Trilogy (City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room), by Paul Auster - Surreal. Reminded me of Borges. Or Cortazar. Strange. Spooky.
  • Witch Hunt, by Ian Rankin - A non Rebus Rankin. Enjoyed it.
  • Mrs. Satoris, by Elke Schmitter - Good. Short. Somewhat strange.
  • The Final Solution, by Michael Chabon - OK. Short, sweet. But lots of extraneous details. Not up there with his best.
  • The Polysyllabic Spree, by Nick Hornby - Very similar to this web page in fact, his essays from The Believer where he reports back on what he read (and/vs. what he bought) over the past month. I got rid of that "what I bought" list once it started to make me crazy. Enjoyed this. Thought it was better than his last novel. Can he please get back to his High Fidelity greatness already?
And since I got back, I read another Ward Just, who just may be one of my favorite discoveries of 2005 and here we are just in January. This one was called "An Unfinished Season", a bildungsroman of a Chicagoan, Wilson Ravan, who finds himself caught on the edge of several worlds, but belonging to none. It swept me right along. Eloquent, intellectual. Rewarding. Highly recommended!

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December 19, 2004

Best of the Year

Best Novel Read in 2004: The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth

Runners-Up: The Houdini Girl, by Martyn Bedford and The Great Fire, by Shirley Hazzard

Check Books Duff's Read so far in 2004 for more recommendations (those in pink, obviously).

Favorite New Discoveries: Jonathan Coe ("The Rotters Club" and "The Winshaw Legacy"), William Boyd ("Any Human Heart", "The New Confessions" and "Stars and Bars"), Alison McGhee ("Rainlight" and "Shadow Baby") and Haven Kimmel ("Something Rising (Light and Swift)" and "The Solace of Leaving Early").

Recent Activities

Just whizzed through three shorties: The Girl Who Played Go, by Shan Sa, Shadow Baby, by Alison McGhee, and Lucky Girls, by Nell Freudenberger.

Last first: Lucky Girls surprised me, as I often feel let down by short stories. All narrated by young women in SE Asia and India, one of the few short story collections I've read where the characters of each story remain distinct. Some younger, some slightly older. Some written in 3rd person, some in 1st. All somewhat lost, searching, or confused. Really enjoyed it.

Americans could go all over the world and still be Americans; they could live just the way they did at home and nobody wondered who they were, or why they were doing things the way they did.

Shadow Baby was just as luminescent, and painfully poignant as "Rainlight", although there were a few things that I want to go back and check against the earlier book, see if I'm remembering them correctly. Some of the same characters, but they seem to have slightly different lives here... So not really a sequel, or perhaps a sequel in "another life" these characters could have/may have had. A story of a young girl, who creates stories for every life that touches her own.

The Girl Who Played Go is a little glimpse into 1930s Manchuria, with civil revolutions on the outside and romantic ones on the inside. Lovely little book. But very detached. Doesn't always let you in. Beautiful, almost saturated, descriptions.

My loneliness is like a bolt of crimson silk stowed in the bottom of a wooden chest.

Happiness is something you lay siege to, it is a battle like a game of go. I will take hold of all the pain and snuff it out.

Now back to Quicksilver...

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November 7, 2004

The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth NOT being nominated for the National Book Award is a CRIME. It's the best book I've read this year, and I do not expect that to change over the next month and a half. Not only does the novel eerily portray a similar frightening schism to what's going on in America today, but it's written extraordinarily well. I think, with all his notoriety particularly within the realm of academia/literary shoptalk, people forget what a great writer Roth is. His last four books have taken things to a new level each time and this was no different. The historical context is so convincingly portrayed, one of Roth's friends in Europe called him and said "my god, I had no idea this had gone on in America!" Uh, no, it didn't, Roth just wrote it so well that it seems like it must have happened!

His use of adjectives blew me away. For example, when the young Philip is helping his mother do laundry using the "wringer" you used to run your clothes through (between two rollers) to squeeze the excess water out before hanging them to dry: but now I steeled myself to drop each wet, deformed item of mangled laundry into the laundry basket and carry the basket upstairs.. Wet and deformed because of course clothing resembles the limbs it will cover, and they've been run through a wringer... Ach, beautiful. Some great descriptions of the nuns he sees in the neighborhood (running the orphanage), as he passes them in their witchy attire with the naked little region that was the wimpled, plain, unornamented face, no nap, no softness, no fuzziness anywhere. The one uncovered area as naked. Love the imagery.

A very pertinent quote for today's times: ...nor had I understood till then how the shameless vanity of utter fools can so strongly determine the fate of others.

I needed something light after that so I picked up Marriage, a duet, by Anne Taylor Fleming which is actually more about adultery than it is marriage. Two different adulterous situations described from the point of view of the one left behind/at home. Well-written, but somewhat painful to read. I wouldn't recommend giving it to anyone as an anniversary present! A first novel, I thought she could have used a better editor. A couple places where she repeated the same expression in a way that didn't seem like "bringing it all together" but rather like "woops, inadvertently repeating myself here."

...David began to understand something he thought he would never personally understand: how you came to live in your marriage and outside of it at the same time, tethered by hurt, disappointment, habit.

The Adventures of Flash Jackson, by William Kowalski. Really enjoyed this book, the story of an adventurous 17-year-old girl who breaks her leg and spends the next year going through every kind of change possible as she goes to live with her "Grandma" a mysterious homeopathic forest dweller. Loved this description of snow: It has a way of quieting things down, nice and peaceful - not like someone yelling at you to shut up, but like they're whispering that you should sit down and relax for a while.

On love: It was safer never to get so close to someone that they could drag your soul along after them - this is what I decided. It seemed to me like if you gave someone that kidn of power over yourself, then you didn't have control anymore, and that scared the hell out of me..

Very conversational style, definitely drew me in from the start.

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. A graphic novel that is receiving lots of hype due to its subject matter: growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution. Well-written, neatly drawn. But...but you know I'm not much of a non-fiction reader. I felt like I was reading a cartoon version of a history book. Enjoyed it. Thought it felt very real, very "this is how it affected this young teen". But didn't feel "Wow." Didn't feel "dazzling" or "delectable" or utterly fascinating" as some of the blurbs on the back suggest. Agree that it is "totally unique" and "one of freshest and most original memoirs of our day" but didn't find it "astonishing as only true stories can be" (and frankly think that quote has other problems let alone not applying to how I felt about this book). Worth reading, particularly if you don't know much about that historical moment, or if you want to get a glimpse into some of the history affecting that region of the world today. But don't count on it blowing you away...

Currently Reading:

After his recent appearance on Gilmore Girls, and the need to read something politically viable during these disturbing times, I went with The Armies of the Night, by Norman Mailer as my next read. I am really, really enjoying it!! Written in third person, describing a weekend in Washington protesting the Vietnam war, Mailer pokes fun at himself, and his ego, and his other eccentricities on nearly every page. Yes, Mailer has an egotism of curious disproportions. With the possible exception of John F. Kennedy, there had not been a President of the United States nor even a candidate since the Second World War whom Mailer secretly considered more suitable than himself... Hilarious. Lots of neat literary moments, his complex friendship wth Robert Lowell, his (and others) presence as literary icons which at the time lent them significant political power (yet now seems to be going the opposite way and non politicians speaking about politics is generally derided in our conservative society).

If what the United States is doing in Vietnam* is right, what is there left to be called wrong? *Insert "Iraq" instead and the sentence is just as true.

And some more humor: An evening without a wicked lady in the room was like an opera company without a large voice.

This is a great read, so glad I picked it up.

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October 19, 2004

Have read a bunch of random things since my last post: started the King Dark Tower series; read a book of really academically intense poetry that I'm not sure I really even know people I could recommend it to, although I think it's brilliant (Anne Carson); devoured a Dick Francis on the plane; went back to read some Shakespeare since I don't think I've read any since grad school and isn't it about time I renewed that well (got another couple sitting at the top of the pile - am thinking maybe will read through all the tragedies for a winter project); continued several mystery/noir series (Alan Furst and Henning Mankell)... You can go check the list page if you want to know the details...

But the big news of course is that I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susannah Clark. I actually finished it a couple of weeks ago but have not had time to blog unfortunately. Very good book. Well-written. Great idea. But... But I don't think it's quite worth of the hype it's getting. The first third of the book is very slow; Clark doesn't give you any characters to care about, not even bad ones. The two truly likable people in that section of the book are minor characters without much "screen time", one of whom I found myself consistently wishing throughout the entire book that we got to see more of (and Rebecca went to hear Clark read and she said she is writing another book that concentrates on him!). The second third really starts to pick up though, and I found that the book just flew after that. I enjoyed it, really enjoyed some of the side female characters' storylines.

So...I thought it was well-written. Great idea. Loved some of the folklore, loved the mingling of historical fact and historical/fantasy fiction. Thought the last two-thirds were really enjoyable. Wish you saw more of one specific character. And have one scene I just can't make my mind up on. (A character assumes something, I'm not sure we're meant to believe/agree with him or not.)

Definitely glad I read it, definitely recommend it. But can easily picture certain people not enjoying it. And others not making it through!

For my UK cousins who might decide to read it: Charles James Fox is mentioned! Pg 360 in the US hardcover edition...

A few moments I really enjoyed:

The countries of southern Europe have always had a strong attraction for me. I was often struck by the appearance of the countryside when I was in Spain - or at least I believe I would have found it very striking had it not been covered in soldiers and gunsmoke.

It is the right of a traveler to vent their frustration at every minor inconvenience by writing of it to their friends. Expect long descriptions of everything.

The sunlight was cold and clear as the note struck by a knife on a fine wineglass. In such a light the walls of the Church of Santa Maria Ofrmosa were as white as shells or bones - and the shadows on the paving stones were as blue as the sea.

And this one is for my cousins again: They were Englishmen and, to them, the decline of other nations was the most natural thing in the world. They belonged to a race blessed with so sensitive an appreciation of its own talents (and so doubtful an opinion of any body else's) that they would not have been at all surprized to learn that the Venetians themselves had been entirely ignorant of the merits of their own city - until Englishmen had come to tell them it was delightful.

And I'm currently reading The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth which is such an intensely great, well-written, amazing book that I am dragging it out as long as possible because I just don't want it to end!!!!! (Speaking of books that mingle historical fact with historical fiction...wow! The conceit used here is so flawless, I almost forget that it's not what really happened!!) The fact that he was not even nominated for the National Book Award is not just shocking, it's wrong and...and don't you have to wonder about the politics?!? Particularly given the topic of the book. It's amazing. I think they should give him the Nobel for this one.

I've also started the second of the Dark Tower series. So far, it's good, but I've been a little surprised by the gore! Then again, it's just been a million years since I read a Stephen King book (Jeff Britten and I used to read them obsessively in high school...).

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September 19, 2004

Go back and review old things when I have a whole new pile to talk about? Ha, who was I kidding? On to the new!

Something Rotten, by Jasper Fford
The fourth in the Tuesday Next series. While number three I was ambivalent about, this one I really, really enjoyed. Back to the real world, with only some fictional intrusions: Hamlet's romancing of Lady Emma Hamilton really cracked me up. Definitely feeling some Hamlet/Macbeth re-reads coming on what with all the Shakespearian appearances in things I've been reading lately. Funny knitting reference: Still looking in his late twenties, with black hair swept neatly to the side, he might have been a male model from a knitting pattern.

The Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory
I had two different people warn me not to read this book, so much so that I actually gave away the first copy I bought without reading it, but then I was stuck in an airport having finished everything I brought with me, and somehow this just seemed like the right thing. Not "high literature" but not just a bodice ripper either; I enjoyed it - enoughso that I bought another Gregory "The Queen's Fool" to add to the pile. Neat love story at the end between Mary and "poor farmer." Then again, I've always been an anglophile... p.s. I did find a French error in the book! When you first meet a female, it's Enchantée with an extra e, not Enchanté. Doh!

Rainlight, by Alison McGhee
This is a beautiful book, bought via recommendation from GirlDetective. (Yes, this is the one that gave me intense dreams afterward.) The story of a few intertwined folk in a small town, and how a tragedy within their tight-knit circle affects them. Chapters go back and forth between the various characters' voices. Very, very sad, especially for us empathetic pisces' types: there's a couple wet spots in my copy where a tear fell while I was reading! Sad...but rewarding. Beautifully written. Child and adult voices both equally believable and entrancing.

I can feel how his hand would feel on top of mine. The way he lays his fingers down spread out. Slow. Like a skin whisper, is how Johnny touches.

Eva Moves the Furniture, by Margot Livesey
A good companion piece to the McGhee book, Eva is a haunted soul, visited by ghostly companions, the presence of which destroys some of her most important relationships. Short, succinct, reminds me a little of Penelope Fitzgerald: telling just what is needed, no extraneous details or side stories. A modern day fairytale. Set in Scotland, revolving around the war as with so many British books. Bought another Livesey to add to the pile as well.

And moving on: And I'm three quarters through Blood of Victory, by Alan Furst, another of his film noir historical spy novels. This is the sixth of a loosely connected series (novels not necessarily sequential, a major character in one book will have a minor part (maybe even just a tiny reference) in another book), and there's a seventh out in hardcover right now. I read the first five in one big chunk when I found out about them, it's nice to come back to this now after a bit of a break. And after I finish that, hopefully I'll go back and finish that Adam Thorpe book I set aside at the beginning of the month. Either that, or I picked up a used copy of The Deer Park in a stop at Myopic the other day...

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September 10, 2004

I really hate putting up a half-assed reading post - it is my favorite page after all [shocker! Collective gasp as all the knitters reel in horror!} -- but I just don't have time to get decent thoughts here before I finish packing for my weekend...

Sometimes, the short and sweet is all you can manage. OK, I'll try to fill in a bit on a couple of the real winners when I get back next week. I'll try I said. I've learned my lesson about making promises here!!

  • Flashman, by George MacDonald Fraser. Wickedly funny in some spots. Very clever. But don't know that I could read a whole series of this.
  • Daughter of God, by Lewis Perdue. Somewhat intriguing. But needed to be a little less two-dimensional to really pull me in. Very fast read.
  • Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell. Each chapter is a new character. Some chapters I just LOVED. Others = eh. So ultimately felt a bit uneven. Definitely talented. This was his first book - his current (third I think) is up for the Booker and one of the bookies is giving it very high odds!! (Yes, that's in England, where you can actually place official bets at what in the U.S. would be an OTB, but you can place them on who's going to win the country's top literary prize. Now that, my friends, is pretty impressive.)
  • The Great Fire, by Shirley Hazzard. Beautiful, lovely, wonderful book. A book that is so quiet and restrained and yet contains such intense emotions. Thundering. Wow. (Also up for the Booker, but running way behind in the odds.)
  • Chasing Shakespeares, by Sarah Smith. Fun little book about academia, exploring ye olde Shakespeare's identity question. Refreshing to be reminded how excited some goofy scholarly thing can make you feel. Definitely need to give Hamlet and Macbeth a re-read, haven't read them since a Shakespeare class in grad school, what seems such a mighty long time ago.
  • Light of the Moon, by Elizabeth Buchan. Kindly sent over to me from the UK. Female UK spy in WWII, working undercover in France. Falls in love with - of course - the wrong, wrong man. Good, solidly written, enjoyed.

Now I'm whipping through the latest Jasper Fforde, (the fourth!! Really enjoying it again after sort of falling off it a bit in the third.), slowly oh so very slowly reading/translating some simple French stuff, and stuck in the middle of No Telling, by Adam Thorpe. (How stuck? Two and a half other books read stuck. Sometimes you want to read from a little boy's point of view. And sometimes you don't...)

A la semaine prochaine!

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August 7, 2004

I always leave it too long between posts and then it seems I've a whole library to tell you about. It's my own laziness at fault, but it frustrates me and I'm going to need to change the layout of the site somehow to combat it. Anyway, on to the readin'... Think we'll talk about things in a more suspenseful order this time, rather than outing my favorites up top!

In the Land of Mystery

Read another Rankin, The Black Book. Good, as usual, but hard to say much about those, I tend to whip right through them. Still worried about Rebus, his life is just falling apart! But similar to Harry Bosch, he wouldn't be him if it wasn't, so I don't expect that to change. Started two more detective series (although don't think I was reading the first book in either one, had to take what I could find): Gallow's View, by Peter Robinson and Uniform Justice by Donna Leon. The Leon books all take place in Venice (picked this up due to Marrije's recommendation). Already have another waiting in the wings). This should be good preparation in planning for a potential trip to Italy shouldn't it?

Last but not least, read the latest entrant in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes Series The Game, by Laurie R. King. I was particularly excited about this one to do the appearance of a certain Kimball O'Hara, the main character of Kim, by Rudyard Kipling, the book I wrote my Master's Thesis on. He wasn't in the book enough for me, of course, it not being a book about him, but I did enjoy the parts where he was. And the twist on the Bindra situation I quite enjoyed (I don't want to say more and spoil it for you other Laurie King readers). Still, think this series may be played out for me.

Loved the Ending/Hated the Ending

Both of these books I ultimately was not happy with. The one, I really didn't like the book very much at all, until the last two chapters. At which point things came alive and I thought "why didn't she start here?" Yes, would have taken some mystery away, but would have been a book I actually cared about. And the other, I really really enjoyed, until the last two chapters. At which point I got really irritated and annoyed and felt they went for an ending that had nothing to do with the rest of the book. Picky aren't I? Now what the hell am I talking about?

The Photograph, by Penelope Lively. Boring book. Very boring. A husband, Glynn, of recently dead wife, Kath. Finds photos implying she had affair. (I'm not giving anything away, this happens in the first five minutes.) Spends book running around talking to people. Her sister, Elaine. Sister's husband, Nick. Friend, Oliver. Niece, Polly. All boring. Then right at the end of the book, each of the significant participants goes to visit Mary Packard, the one person who appears to have known Kath at all. And suddenly Kath comes alive in a way she hasn't through the rest of the book (yes, I know she's dead, I'm punning), as we are finally dealing with a character who has a clue. Loved that chapter. Loved the subsequent chapter where the other characters start to wake up. Why couldn't the book have started there? That book I would have liked. This one: well, you decide. Is it worth slogging through to get to the gold? There are other books out there, you know... Even if you needed to tell the story of the other characters' obtuseness, you could have given the reader the "in," I would have been intrigued rather than bored...

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. Technically classed as a young adult novel I think due to its location in the bookstore, this is an epistolary novel written by a young boy, Charlie. A pretty depressed young boy who suddenly somehow becomes friends with an older crowd and finally starts to have a high school experience not quite as bad as it had been before. Until the last two chapters where the author, I thought, jumps to an entirely fallacious conclusion, one which did not make sense to me in any way, or have any true foreshadowing. Blech, blech, blech. Did not like the choice he (the author, not the character) made at the end. Not at all. However, enjoyed the rest of it so much, the tone of voice, the wryness, the wandering thoughts of a youngster... So perhaps worth reading for that. If you're into that sort of thing. And perhaps the ending will not bother you in the least.

A Quickie: Not What I'm Looking For

The Big Love, by Sarah Dunn. Chick lit. Very big print, big margins, hence quite the speedy read. Boy leaves girl, girl suffers, girl finds other boy, first boy comes back, girl wakes up. Not a bad book, but nothing that really lifts it out of itself. Typical plot, typical proverbial realizations: Certain people come into your life and you can't hold on to them: you simply take what they have to offer and try to give them something in return. Maybe this is growth, I thought. Not clinging so hard to things. Fine, but not, as my graduate school professors were known to comment in class, not jumping to the next level.

Crowd Pleaser

The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler. Everyone seems to be reading this book this summer, so I jumped on the bandwagon to see what all the fuss was about (how 'bout them proverbs). It was well-written, clever. Thought-out relationships, necessary tension. But...but I just wasn't that interested. I didn't think "I wish I could keep reading about this character" or "Oh why'd that have to end" which frankly are my two barometers for a book being truly good. Then again, I'm not the biggest jane Austen fan (What!?! Not an Austen fan! scream the characters of this book!) -- although I did really enjoy the Stephanie Barron Austen mysteries -- and I just didn't find anyone in this book that intriguing.

Almost There...

Hopscotch, by Julio Cortazar. A big thick philosophical book. You may remember I had engaged in the re-read, of hopscotching around the book with the additional optional chapters. Yeah, except my mind just won't let me do it. I spend the entire time thinking "but I just read this...and there's that big pile of new books right over there...and there's only so much time to read..." Yeah, I'll get back to it one day. I think I would like the other ending better, so it'll stay on my list for a while.

"Truth and Beauty, a Friendship, by Ann Patchett. Very impressive book. I've read all Patchett's fiction now except one ("Taft") which I'll get to soon. I think she's brilliant. Certainly one of the finest living American authors. No bones about it. But this book, it's just so damn painful. This was not an easy relationship, between Ann and Lucy Grealy. And I have to say that whle I know there was a time I would have been willing to put myself through this for people -- been willing to battle past their insecurities, and their pushing away, and their self destructiveness, and their demands -- that time is gone now. I can't imagine it was an easy book to write, or an easy time to look back on. And certainly she must have to work to remember the good over the overwhelmingly bad. Very intense. Very well-written -- half Anne's memoir, half Lucy's letters. Certainly worth reading. But...ouch.

Lucy: I used to think that once you really knew a thing, its truth would shine on forever. Now it's pretty obvious to me that more often than not the batteries fade, and sometimes what you knew even goes out with a bang when you try and call on it, just like a lightbulb cracking off when you throw the switch.

French Lessons, by Alice Kaplan. French professor at Duke looks back on her life, on what French has meant to her, where it brought her, what she used it for. (Sent to me by my cousin, who is similarly studying French right now, although many levels above me!) Really neat stuff about language learning, the way your mouth finally finds where it needs to be, when thoughts begain to be mingled, the ways in which she tried to be French and accomplished it, the ways in which she failed. Very (and sometimes surprisingly) honest book about her own experiences. Really neat.

Hit the Jackpot: Loved, Loved, Loved

The two books I have enjoyed the most over this month.

The Winshaw Legacy, by Jonathan Coe. Brilliant book. As I felt after reading William Boyd earlier in the year, how is it that I haven't heard of this guy before? I've got to get everything he's ever written!! Picked this up to read with the Bookslut book group (now in chicago); turned out my parents were in town that night so I didn't make it, but so glad I was introduced to this book. Many different threads going on, basically the novel is about the Winshaw family, rich scheming villains, who Micahel Owen gets caught up with as he is hired to write a history of the family, that goes from being a history to perhaps being fiction, to completely entangling him in their lives... Lots of black comedy here, some really entertaining details with minor characters. The chapter where Michael is trying to write a sex scene (after being told his books were oddly asexual) is just pure hilarity. A book dense with characters and sub-plots, intrigue and romance. I loved it!

Current-day bonus: Saddam Hussein plot involvement: There may be a few eyebrows raised if we start getting too friendly with a chap whose idea of fun is shooting a couple of thousand volts through the odd political prisoners. Which I gather he's not averse to doing.

The Houdini Girl, by Martyn Bedford. Beautiful. Brought me to tears. Completely intense and amazing. Found this book through a recommendation on Wrybrarian. Main character Fletcher (or "Red") is a magician. His difficult, yet much loved, girlfriend Rosa disappears and is murdered. Suddenly evidence of a double life surfaces. Red begins following the trail of a past he knew nothing about. And reveals his own secrets along the way. With main character as magician, many chapters begin by explaining some aspect of a trick, or a piece of his repertoire...really neat framing technique. Reminded me of Patchett's Magician's Assistant. Powerful feelings hidden under the explanations. Like The Time Traveler's Wife, my favorite book from last year, what in many ways is a mystery, is primarily above all a love story. Really neat details. Could read this one over and over. Cannot recommend it highly enough.

And now I'm reading...

Just picked up Flashman, by George Frasier the first in what I believe is a long series. Really funny stuff. The wildly funny and historically accurate cult classic that introduced us to history's greatest adventurer, randiest cad, and most incorrigible scoundrel. Really enjoying it so far.

And find myself a little stalled in Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell which I bought in London on the way home. Each chapter told from a different character's viewpoints. Really liked a couple, but now have slogged thorugh two which I didn't enjoy as much so having a hard time getting back into it. Still intrigued though, so will get back to it.

Will report back again sooner this time, I hope...

Recent Purchases

One nonfiction (shocking, I know) and three from the Sci-Fi aisles:

  • Athenais, the Life of Louis XIV's Mistress, by Lisa Hilton
  • Blade Dancer, by S.L. Viehl
  • Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Daughter of God, by Lewis Perdue

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June 26, 2004

So I went on this trip to Paris, with a little stop in the south at Montbazin, and then London, and then I wound up in New York on a business trip... And if you look at how many books were added to the list of "duff's read so far" you'll find it has grown exponentially. I must have had a book in my hand the whole time! ;) hee hee... In Montbazin, I did a lot of late-night, relaxing reading after Chloe had gone to bed. I had a lot of time in planes. And I read when I can't deal with doing anything else anymore because my brain is too overloaded and I need to calm down and focus. So there you go, not shocking at all. Here are some of the highlights (and not really in any kind of order. For order, including a few more mysteries not discussed here, look at the overall list):

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller
Wow. This was a really entrancing book. Non-fiction. Memoir. Brutally honest. Written in a very simple, conversational style, it just sucks you right in. I think I sped through this two nights getting into bed in Paris. While the story of Fuller's childhood growing up in various parts of rural Africa, in many ways this was really a story about her mother. It reminded me of the fictional "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" in its poignant, yet almost painful-to-read honesty about a woman who drank too much, got crazy, didn't raise her children as ideally as one could wish, yet gave them experiences most people don't even dream of. Similar to Rumer Godden's experiences as a transplanted Brit in India, Fuller's parents choose to live amongst the natives, which brings both blessings and curses. Also reminded me that it's been a long time since I read a Nadine Gordimer book but I remember really loving "The Burgher's Daughter". (And of course, at this point, it's hard to read a book about Africa without thinking of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen.)

Some Africans believe that if your baby dies, you must bury it far away from your house, with proper magic and incantations and gifts for the gods, so that the baby does not come back, time after time, and plant itself inside your womb only to die a short time after birth. This is a story for people who need to find an acceptable way to lose a multitude of babies.

Mum's finger plays lightly over the top of the safety catch on her gun. "Yes? Can I help you?"...It is only then we see that both men are armed with thick shiny black Bibles. Mum shuffles her gun behind her back. "Oh shit, Jesus creepers..."

Fuller has a new book out, telling the story of a man, K, an African rebel. I almost bought it the other day, but then I had such a pile in front of me already I was easily able to hold back. The owner of the store told me it was good, but not as good as this one.

The Epicure's Lament, by Kate Christensen
Bought this on impulse the night before I left and read most of it on the plane on the way over (It's a 7 hour flight. I couldn't sleep. What did you expect?) The novel is written as the journal of Hugo, a disgruntled, dying young, middle-aged, pseudo hermit, "writing about myself like a lovelorn teenage diarist with budding breasts and a zit she can't get rid of." His life of solitude comes to an end as first his brother, then his ex-wife and (perhaps) daughter descend on him, and his life is once again drawn into others' affairs. Reminds me of several Philip Roth novels ("Sabbath's Theater" particularly), a curmudgeon who's not nearly as bitter as he'd like to think, an anti-hero of the best sort. I really enjoyed this book. Is it scary to say this is how I see myself in 20 years - or at least one of the possibilities.

I never had a steady girlfriend; I always kept several girls going at once. I liked them all just fine, but I was too pissed off to love anyone. This naturally made me unaccountably irresistible to many women.

People on the whole tend to be deeply intrigued by and gravitate toward anyone who is not insecure, vulnerable, or needy, who seems to be comfortable in his own lonesome skin and in possession of the secret of easy autonomy.

Human bonds and bondages tear at the fragile fabric of each self: betrayal, misunderstanding, heartbreak, loss, anger grief. We can't both be true to ourselves and in some sort of relationship to each other, and in almost every instance, minute and overarching, one or the other has to give. I chose what I chose; other people choose otherwise.

The Long Firm, by Jake Arnott
In London for really only one day (two mini days of travel, one day up north to knit), there was no question that I was going to fit in a visit to Foyle's, one of my top three bookstores in the world (Coliseum Books in New York [well, the old one. They opened in their new location, after a year of having no location, after I moved.], and the Tattered Cover in Denver being the other two). I always find good books here, unexpected books, books I wouldn't have looked at in other stores, as well as books that just aren't in other stores... One of my purchases this trip was the first of several Arnott books, I'm probably going to have to order his subsequent novels from Amazon-UK! "The Long Firm" is a gangster novel set in sixties London. It's told from the point of view of several different characters, in consecutive sections, all centering around a particular gangster, Harry Starks, the young boys he favors, the Lord he exerts influence over, the dirty cop who double-crosses him, the B movie starlet he sweeps into his web. Film noir. Cool and stylish, yet wickedly brutal at times. It's being made into a series at the BBC. Not sure I've read anything like it, very a-typical.

A fine example of how jail keeps young men lean and fit, mean and ready for more crime once they're out again.

Abandon, by Pico Iyer
Iyer was recommended to me as a travel essayist, but I've never gotten around to reading him. Then for some reason, when I saw him in the fiction section, I decided to pick it up. Still not sure what I thought of this book. The back cover refers to it as a "stylish intellectual mystery." Hmmmm... The main character is a Brit transplanted to California for grad school studying the Sufi mystic Rumi's poems. He gets deeply involved, very quickly, with a mysterious woman, Camilla, who's certainly depressed, if not manically so. They have odd encounters there, and a trip to Iran as well. The book was very elusive, connections are made that sometimes the reader can't be sure how they happened; felt like all smoke and mirrors. Very mystical, Sufi-istic if you can say that. It was poetic and moving, but ultimately left me...confused? Out in the cold? Wondering what I had just witnessed? I feel...like I only got a glimpse of things, but never found the way in.

There are two kinds of desert in the world...the desert of faith and the desert of anarchy. "In one place, people search for water, look for what materials can sustain them; in the other, people only look for themselves."

Abandonment...is the crime that god is accused of by man...Yet what if we take the word a little differently? What if, let's say, God's abandonment is not that of an indifferent parent, but, rather, that of a composer, a creator, so carried away by the forces that race through Him that He forgets everything around Him and lets the story run away with Him? What if God gets so lost in the delight, the forgetfulness, of creating that what He's making somehow takes on a life of its own, as we say? What, in other words, if the abandonment that God is guilty of is not that of desertion but, rather, of rapture, the neglectfulness of an artist who lets the work take over?

Politeness in him meant distance: it was the wall he put up that was more resistant than any locked door.

A rooftop is a basement in reverse, he thought: an angel's place for hiding things.

Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imaginatinon, by Helen Fielding
This one is getting horrible reviews. I did spend the first half at least thinking "Wow, this is so stupid." But then, suddenly, I started to enjoy it. At least for the last bit. Particularly the goofy, very misinterpreted romance between Olivia and Scott/Morton. I think everyone got so swept up in the Bridget Jones phenomenon that they started to forget how the original books were really, actually, funny, more than anything else. Not high-brow literature, not shockingly well written, but just funny accounts of one goofy girl's many trip-ups and accidents as she struggles through life. Just as Bridget was a silly, sort-of, wanna-be TV reporter, Olivia is a silly, sort-of, wanna-be journalist. Its intently current-day focus (Osama bin Laden, 9/11, etc.) threw me at first as well. In the end, I don't expect there to be any further Olivia books, but I don't think it's quite as bad as some of the reviews I've seen (I think EW gave it an F!).

...she was English and believed in the hot air of politeness, for, as the Girl Guide Handbook says, 'There's nothing but air in a tyre, but it certainly makes the wheels go round more smoothly!'

Hearing Birds Fly, by Louisa Waugh
This is the story of the year Waugh spent living in a tiny village in Mongolia. Unlike Fuller or Godden, who were children dragged round the world by parents, Waugh has gone off on her own, left her comfortable life in London, to face the remote. She spent two years in the Mongolian capital, but felt that she had yet to really "meet" the country she had come to find. So off to a tiny village, Tsengel, to face a brutal land (how many times have I used "brutal" today. Where the hell is my thesauraus.) all on her own. Another book about some place I don't really ever want to go, but I did find very captivating (a-ha, found it) to read about. Life stripped down to its bare essentials, like living with the Amish, but in a place of brutal (here we go again), harsh, demanding winters, very unlike the Pennsylvania countryside. A land that gives as little back as possible, no matter what your effort.

Something Rising (Light and Swift), by Haven Kimmel
Loved, loved, loved this book. Think she's a genius. Second book of hers I read this year (scroll down to read about "The Solace of Leaving Early"). Soon I will have to pick up her nonfiction one ("Zippy" something). A bildungsroman, the story of Cassie, a pool-playing heroine, who supports her crazy sister and silent mother, bolsters up her lost friends, and seeks to set things right with her past. I felt that the same quote I have used to refer to myself for years could be used to describe Cassie: "...her hands deep in her pocket like any Midwestern girl who's run out of luck for the moment but will soon be back as good as new" (Richard Ford, "The Sportswriter"). She's fierce and fearless, alone with her empathy. Somewhat tragic in those ways, has to be forced to care for herself. Hope Kimmel's got another one in the works.

She was so small, Cassie noticed, tucked inside her layers of clothes like a two-word note in an envelope.

Every day was open season on rabbits. They had trained themselves, as a species, to die of heart attacks when necessary, a clever adaptation if every day meant death.

What I'm Readin' Now:

I just "finished" Hopscotch, by Julio Cortazar. However, I have decided to do as the author wishes: I read it straight through to the end of Chapter 56. Now I have begun again, with Chapter 73, reading it through with all the "expendable chapters" interspersed as instructed. Cari tells me it has a different ending this way as well. I'll report back on that one next time.

Next in the line-up is The Wishbone Legacy, by Jonathan Coe for the Bookslut Chicago bookclub. I'm generally not a real bookclub person but I'm hoping to meet some cool people!

A Few of My Recent Purchases

  • Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell (another Foyle's find)
  • Q, by Luther Blissett (Foyle's)
  • No Telling, by Adam Thorpe (Foyle's)
  • A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies, John Murray (Foyle's)
  • Gallow's View, by Peter Robinson (recommended to me since I read Ian Rankin, Dick Francis, Michael Connelley, Robert Crais, etc...)
  • The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler (getting so much hype, I had to see for myself)
  • The Big Love, by Sarah Dunn (chick lit that I am hoping is up to Darcy Cosper standards -- scroll down to read about her book "Wedding Season." We'll see.)
  • The Game, by Laurie R. King (part of the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, in this book they encounter the now grown-up Kim, the hero of Rudyard Kipling's book "Kim" which is in fact the book I wrote my Master's thesis on. Bet you didn't know that!)

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May 21, 2004

And finally I am back to discuss some (yes, only some. I do have a trip to pack for, you know!) of my recent reads. Suffice it to say, all the Rankins are me continuing along the Rebus series. Fox River and Final Target were both just quick throwaway reads doing laundry or some such. OK? Now on to the others:

Let's Talk Sci Fi First

Angelica, by Sharon Shinn
This book goes back to Samaria, the world Shinn created in "The Archangel Trilogy" of a few years back. If you've read those, you'll enjoy this. Remember all the stuff the angels had figured out about Jehovah at the end of those? Well, in this book, far "later" or further into the future I'd say, that knowledge has been lost, except to perhaps the Oracle. So very interesting reading this one actually having more knowledge than some of the characters this time around. For those who haven't read these, basically the novels are about these "angels" who sing to the god "Jehovah" in order to bring rain if needed, stop storms, get medicine for the sick, thank him/her for the sunshine, etc. Only it turns out the god isn't really a god at all, it's... Intrigued? I do recommend reading the earlier trilogy first in this case. It starts with "Archangel." And apparently there is another book out (coming after Angelica) in hard back so you'll have five books to read. I always find it satisfying to start off a series with quite a few of them already written. So you don't wind up spending your lifetime, say, waiting on Robert Jordan to finish each book and praying he doesn't die before the series is over!! Which bring us to...

New Spring, by Robert Jordan
A Wheel of Time prequel. Since it's got a logo "The Wheel of Time: In the Beginning" I can only assume there will be a whole batch of these skinny little wasting time telling us back stories we don't really need to know rather than writing the books to finish the real series. Not to say I didn't enjoy it. But now that the real books seems to cover like one day of events, rather than several months as the earlier books in the series did, it makes it feel even further and farther between installments. And didn't feel like anything I read here was really all that revelatory. Although it can never hurt to read more about Lan. Where is the Lan of my world. Can he find me already.

The Middleweight Division

Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haigh
Sort of an odd book, this is not so much the story of the three Mrs. Kimbles, all married to the same man, sometimes at the same time, but rather of Mr. Kimball, and of his son Charles who slowly puts the pieces of his father's life together as he meets the women who replaced his mother. It was an OK book - "more well written than not" if that makes sense - but I wouldn't say it reached any great heights. The dad is a very cool character ("cool" as in cold, detached, unemotional, not "cool" like Fonzie) as you might expect, but that tone sort of lay over the whole book, making things feel a little more detached than you would expect in a book on such intimate relationships. Not something I'm interested in reading a second time, which really is the ultimate test in my world.

A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep, by Rumer Godden
Reading this memoir, I was really struck by how much of her novels comes from Godden's actual life experiences. A lot. I mean, a lot, a lot. Really. :) Very intriguing life she led. Full of many of the same challenges as befall the female/mother characters of her books. Penniless in India, yet considered rich due to her skin color of course (this is during the height of British imperialism). Amazing life. No wonder she felt driven to write stories about it.

And the Heavy Stuff

The Fall, by Simon Mawer
A boy and I used to read a lot of adventure nonfiction together. Fiction is really more my thing, but that goes a little way toward explaining why I was so attracted to this book about two young men, climbers, whose lives have been intertwined since childhood. Somewhat reminiscent of A.S. Byatt's "Possession" where the novel follows both a current story (the lives of the two boys/men) and an old one (the lives of their mothers). Many interesting relationships throughout, friendships that evolve into love, friendships that fall out due to such evolutions. As is so often the case with British authors, the lives of the early characters are irrevocably affected by the War. Really enjoyed this book.

Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.

There are two sorts of danger: objective and subjective... But then you might get hit by a bus on the way to the pub. A bus is objective danger. The fact that you stepped off the sidewalk without looking is subjective.

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich
My dad says this is the best book he's read so far this year. I also thought it was really good. I'm not giving anything away when I tell you it's the story of a priest, Father Damien Modeste, serving on an Indian reservation, only he's really a woman. Now late in life, another Priest has come to investigate the possible sainting of an Indian woman/nun who grew up there, and Father Modeste has to balance telling the truth about Sister Leopolda and possibly revealing his/her own secrets. The narration goes back and forth in time as we learn the events that lead to Agnes becoming Father Damien, the background stories from the reservation, the mysterious happenings around Sister Leopolda. Very intriguing and unusual book. I'm not sure I've ever read anything like it.

The Patron Saint of Liars, by Ann Patchett
Not unusually for me, I've been reading Ann Patchett in the opposite order, as my introduction to her came one year at Christmas when my Dad gave me "Bel Canto," a great, great book. Then I read "The Magician's Assistant." Wow, even more amazing. And now on to "The Patron Saint." I'm always blown away by authors who can create such dissimilar environments and characters in each novel, you never know what to expect. Three different sections, three different voices. Really well-written book, pulls you right along. Story of Rose, who goes to an unwed mothers home to presumably have her baby and give it away, but doesn't, and stays. Son, the handyman she eventually marries. Cecilia, her daughter. Lots of neat thoughts about familial relationships.

To be truly brave, I believe a person has to be more than a little stupid. If you knew how hard or how dangerous something was going to be at the onset, chances are you'd never do it, so if I went back I would never be able to leave again.

It was a time in my life when a Junior Mint could mean the difference between happiness and unhappiness.

What I loved, by Siri Hustvedt
Very intense book, and not necessarily what I expected. Beginning of book is how Leo, an art historian, and Bill, an artist, come to meet and become friends, and their lives begin evolving side by side. And then, as the back cover blurb describes it, "the two families are tested, first by sudden tragedy, and then by a monstrous duplicity that slowly comes to the surface." Very, very intense. Really interesting. Referring once again to A.S. Byatt's "Possession," where Byatt not only wrote the story, but also the poetry of two very different poets, Hustvedt here presents such amazingly vivid descriptions of Bill's art that I really wanted to get to see it! As with many of my favorite novels, the people here have been steeped in academia. Leo dissects Bill's work, Violet's work is dissection of sorts; these people are well read, excited by intelligence, working with feverish passion. Totally enthralling. One of the best books I've read so far this year. (See the highlighted items in the 2004 read list if you can't remember the others!)

So often it's lightness that we admire. Those people who appear weightless and unburdened, who hover instead of walk, attract us with their defiance of ordinary gravity. Their carelessness mimics happiness.

Above all, the tapes revealed the furious animation of children, the fact that when conscious they rarely stop moving... I said to myself that growing up really means slowing down.

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May 17, 2004

Here's a list of what I've read since last post.

  • Fox River, by Emilie Richards
  • New Spring: The Novel, by Robert Jordan
  • Strip Jack, by Ian Rankin
  • Mortal Causes, by Ian Rankin
  • Angelica, by Sharon Shinn
  • Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haigh
  • The Fall, by Simon Mawer
  • Tooth and Nail, by Ian Rankin
  • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich
  • Final Target, by Iris Johansen
  • The Patron Saint of Liars, by Ann Patchett
  • A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep, by Rumer Godden
  • What I loved, by Siri Hustvedt

I'll try to come back tonight and tell you what I thought of them. Or at least some of them.

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April 13, 2004

I've read a lot of books since my last post here. A lot. What can I say - books are my solace. Plus it seems that my presence on an airplane manifest automatically causes delays, perhaps even cancellations, and let's face it, a mystery novel rarely lasts me more than two hours, and most of my airport reading lately has been over a much longer time period than that. Then you add in the time on the plane, and boom. If I didn't count the books read during travel, I'd actually have read less than half as many over this month. Strange, I know, but true.

To make things a little easier (on myself, of course), we'll deal with the "serious fiction" first, and I'll try to give some cursory comments on the "lighter" and "genre" (or "I was stuck in an airport") fiction but considering it's past midnight, I won't be devoting that much time to it.

Literature by Any Standard

The Solace of Leaving Early, by Haven Kimmel
This is the second-best book I've read thus far this year. Truly entrancing. The entangled story of: a young academic, Langston Braverman, returning to her hometown for reasons at first unknown; Amos Townsend, the small town's priest; and Immaculata and Epiphany, the surviving children of Alice, a congregant of Amos and a childhood friend of Langston. Is it redundant to call it both magical and mystical? By "mystical" I specifically mean "concerning religious mysticism" and by "magical" I mean "I felt that special tingle of magic you get from a really good novel as I read it." Is it necessary that your religious beliefs be the same as someone else's? How does grief affect you? When are you able to forgive yourself? Will you be ready when love finds you? Langston's relationship with her mother, and their dual relationship with the maternal grandmother was only one of many things that "rang true" in this book. I bought it on a whim, since Kimmel's new novel "Something Rising (Light and Swift)" was getting such good reviews. Sometimes I go back and buy an older novel in paperback instead to see if I think the author's worth the hardcover price. This strategy has worked out well so far: I didn't feel the need to buy the new Jhumpa Lahiri. I quite certainly feel the need to go pick up the next Kimmel.

It is the nature of the world that we miss the moment our fate changes, but can recall it later with perfect clarity.

Oh - and there's a great dog in this book too!

Little Children, by Tom Perrotta
Perrotta is someone I've recommend a lot in the past, although perhaps that predates this Web site. I often tell people who loved Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity" that they should read Perrotta's "The Wishbones" as a companion piece. He also wrote the book that the wickedly funny movie "Election" (with Reece Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick) was based on. This book, however, was a lot less sarcastic than both of those. And I don't necessarily mean that in a good way. The story of several disenchanted parents of young children who are unfaithful in various ways, intermingled with the stress put on such a community by the arrival of a child molester in their midst. I thought it was a good book, despite being a bit more sentimental than I was expecting. But the ending was a little...eh...Weak. Then again, I've been reading a lot of middle-of-series mysteries. Maybe I'm just in the mood for intensity. Hard to read a book about so many unhappy relationships when you're thinking "what I wouldn't give for an unhappy relationship right now..." Pathetic, I know.

After all, what was adult life but one moment of weakness piled on top of another?

OK, so there was some sarcasm.

The New Confessions, by William Boyd
Very well written. I'd probably call it one of the best books I've read this year. Except that next to Boyd's more recent "Any Human Heart" that I read a month or two ago, it's just not quite as good. A difficult standard to be judged by, for any book. AHH was written pseudo-autobiographically as journal entries and letters, New Confessions presents itself as the autobiography of John James Todd, who begins as a student, enrolls against his own best intentions in the army, is a prisoner of war, and most importantly a film director in the early 1900s. Lots of neat relationships, neat placements within the historical context (Todd is the eleventh member of the Hollywood 10; he spans the gap from "silents" to "talkies"; he interviews someone who knew Billy the Kid). Intriguing details about filmmaking (I wonder how many research hours Boyd had to put in on this one!). Good, solid, well-written, intelligent, miles above so much else. But not above AHH. If you're going to read both, you might want to read this one first, so you travel forward in his evolution as a writer, rather than being just a wee bit disappointed with the evolution backward. The real difference between the novels is the nature of the narrator: in AHH, you are rooting for him, every step of the way, despite his failures, his mistakes, etc. In this book, he's not quite as sympathetic. He can be mean, often heartless. He brings it on himself in many cases. Not as easy a man (or novel) to love.

How we live reflects our own natures. The prudent, cautious, sensible approach would never be the one I chose.

[Writing an autobiography is] a good job for an old man with time on his hands. (Whatever wretched biblical sage decided to plump for three-score years and ten did none of us a favor. It is the most arbitrary watershed - why not four-score years - but once you pass it a fear is unleashed into your life like a ferret in a rabbit warren. It's like being out in a war-torn city after curfew. You are out of bounds and it's a good time to set your house in order, to pick through the fragments.

The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis
A black-comedy solidly in the Southern humor and "Confederacy of Dunces" traditions. A bad day that becomes a bad week, a bad month... Reminded me a little of "Wonder Boys" where you start to think "What could go wrong next?" and then "Oh. Yeah..." Roy Midge, a self-proclaimed Civil War historian, is tracking his wife Norma, who ran off with her first husband. He picks up Dr. Reo Symes, the Falstaff of the book, along the way, and things just spin further and further out of control.

There are one or two points on female plumbing that I have never been clear on.

A Little on the Lighter Side

Wedding Season, by Darcy Cosper
This really doesn't deserve to be derogatorily referred to as "chick lit" as it's much better written (grammatically I believe that phrase has some issues. It's nearly 2 a.m., shoot me) than the typical book in that so-called genre, and I think the author was done a disservice by the pastel wedding dress cover art. A comedy of manners even Jane Austen would enjoy. The characters are intelligent, well-written, attractive people. Joy Silverstein has 17 weddings to go to in six months, with her boyfriend Gabe, the two of whom have vowed never to marry. I'm sure you can guess some of what will happen but I was pleased that the book did not have a Hollywood ending, although I didn't feel the ending was quite true to the book's spirit. Joy has a great group of girlfriends. You know, like the groups all my friends, hardly any of whom are actually friends with each other, are part of while I run around the outskirts, friends of all of them, but not in anyone's "group." Her lesbian best friend Henry wears awesome double entendu t-shirts, many of which I plan to get printed for myself, all of which I am too tired to find right now, but I swear I'll tell you later if you really want to know.

I empathize with transsexuals; I am a straight girl trapped in the body of a straight girl. There's no corrective operation for it that I know of. The best I can hope for is a change in the zeitgeist: short of that I'm left squirming around in the world like a restless child in the back seat on a long car trip.

There is no Good, no True, and as far as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is concerned, in any given instance each of us has only a version of what we believe to be true, and each version is merely a question of perspective.

[Marital advice:] "Don't cook with too much butter," Gran says. "Or he will get very fat and sweat like a beast, and wheeze like a steam engine when he climbs the stairs."

Bringing Down the House, the Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, by Ben Mezrich
As you may have noticed, I don't read much nonfiction. (I get my real life on the outside.) For some reason this book jumped out at me in one of the airport bookstores, and I was halfway through before I knew it. Hey, I used to date someone whose dad was literally a "gambler-aholic" or whatever the word for it is (a sick, sick, twisted man who would bet the shirt off his back, lose it, and try to bet the skin off his back and no I'm not exaggerating). Very intense book. If you've ever enjoyed a few hours of blackjack, you'll enjoy this.

Isn't It Romantic, by Ron Hansen
Lovely little story of two Parisians, Natalie and her playboy fiance Pierre, stranded in small-town Nebraska. A comedy of misadventures, mistaken identities, romantic schemes that backfire. I'm sure there is a Shakespearean comedy with very similar happenings, but it's late and Shakespeare's plots are one of the furthest things from my mind right now. Short and sweet. Fun, lighthanded "romance" but not in the bookstore definition of the word. And of course I particularly enjoyed all the French bits thrown in, all of which seemed to be right at my level.

A Mystery a Day Keeps (the Detective?) Away

A Fistful of Rain, by Greg Rucka Read a lot of Rucka last year. This one a stand-alone. Very intense. Mim not your standard "likable" heroine, but I was rooting for her nonetheless. A lot of neat details.

The Last Detective, by Robert Crais Another entry in the Elvis Cole series. Solid entry, but tailing off a wee bit. Not enough Pike.

Hide and Seek, by Ian Rankin Book #2 in the Rebus series. A bit darker than book one. I'm starting to worry a little about him. But looking forward to reading more.

Trial Run , Straight, and Wild Horses all by Dick Francis When can you ever go wrong with a Dick Francis novel? Intelligent, always surprisingly talented heroes. Horses. What more does a girl need? All quite enjoyable. Not up to the level of "Bolt" and "Break In," my two all-time favorite Francis books (and two books that are probably in my ultimate Desert Island top 10 as I never tire of reading them), but fun reads nonetheless.

Dead Aim, by Iris Johansen Some characters return from an earlier book (sorry I can't find it to tell you which one, I may have given it away). Strong new female photojournalist lead. Scary.

And Now I'm Reading...

What, you thought maybe I was taking a break? Yeah, right. I finished Kimmel's book a little short of breath with tears in my eyes. Sat down and knitted a few rows. Kept sneaking glances at the bookshelf. Hmmm, what next. What I loved, by Siri Hustvedt. I'm about 20 pages in. I can already tell it's going to be a strong contender for the best books list. Unless things go really sour in the next...300 pages. I really like how it starts... But it's very, very early in the morning here, and I'm wanting my bed; I'll just have to leave you in suspense for now.

Oh and if you're curious what order this myriad of disparate items was read in, go to the "read in 2004" link above where they are listed in order rather than lumped together by level of literariness. Happy reading.

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March 16, 2004

As usual, I've been reading like a mad woman. You've got to wonder where I find the time - particularly with all the time I waste lying on the couch doing nothing!

Finishing off February

Untangling my Chopsticks, a Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto, by Victoria Abbott Riccardi
My first impression of this book was: Writing a little dry, don't feel the author's that 'connected' to it, at least not yet. Sadly that held true to the end. While clearly Riccardi was greatly affected by her experiences in Japan, in general, and in the art of kaiseki (the formal Japanese tea ceremony) in particular, she never really manages to get much emotion across to her reader. Even her relationship with her then boyfriend, now husband, while clearly very meaningful to her, is described incredibly blandly. This is in striking contrast to books I enjoyed last year, such as Anthony Bourdain's travels (some of which are in Asia) where the food comes alive, practically leaps off the plate at you, or Bill Holm's amazing, exuberant book on his Chinese experience "Coming Home Crazy." Are we to infer from its manner that Riccardi has absorbed so much of the Japanese sensibility, and the purposeful blandness of its cooking (as she describes it, so the bits of spice truly stand out) so fully that her writing has now become a metaphor for it? Very interesting details about the tea ceremony, but writing lackluster enough to almost be a technical manual rather than a memoir.

Interesting tips: you are never supposed to add wasabi to soy when eating sushi. Only when eating sashimi. Otherwise it is considered an insult to the chef. It's put on the tray/table merely as a formality, like putting salt and pepper shakers on the table. If you add it to your soy, the chef thinks you're shit because he's seasoned your food perfectly and you're telling him otherwise. And if you're going to drink sake, order it before dinner. Because sake is based on rice, and the Japanese consider drinking it with sushi to be redundant. Like ordering a side of bread with your sandwich.

On the Plane to Colorado

I Wish Someone Were There Waiting for Me, by Anna Gavalda
A book of short stories translated from French, Gavalda also has a novel out in her native tongue. Stuck in unexplainable Thursday afternoon traffic on the way to the airport, I read half of these stories before I even got on the plane. Some of them were so short as to barely qualify as a full story - they felt more like "snippets." Interesting little glimpses into (tiny moments in) relationships - sibling, friend, and romantic. Some brought tears to my eyes. I hope her novel gets translated (I doubt my French is up to that yet!) as it'd be interesting to see one of these emotional states sustained. The succinctness was the strength of some stories, the weakness of others. Finally - a book I can recommend to all my friends who are mothers, not something you've got to devote a lot of time to. Might be a better read, in fact, put down between each story. I find, in general with short story collections, sometimes it's hard to keep the stories separate in your mind. Interestingly, Gavalda is very versatile with narrators, some male, some female, young, old. She inhabits a variety of voices convincingly.

On Love, by Alain de Botton
Also a little book (like Gavalda's it is about an inch shorter, and an inch thinner, than your average novel), perfect for the plane. A philosophical treatise on one relationship, its beginning, middle and ultimate demise. The narrator's obsessive emotions, particularly as the relationship begins to fall apart, felt very real to me. The discussion of fate, as the relationship begins, and reality, as it becomes the norm, felt a little hermeneutic, but I wasn't sure whether that was the authorial voice asserting itself, or the narrator's voice trying to give himself some distance (appear less involved by philosophically discussing the things he was feeling). Nothing here that will surprise anyone who's ever been in a relationship that's ended (and those of you who haven't, what the hell are you doing on my web site? Go, go far away, I want no proof of your existence), but a somewhat charming read nonetheless. Easy to sympathize with the narrator, while knowing all along that you're seeing only his point of view.

We could perhaps define maturity - that ever elusive goal - as the ability to give everyone what they deserve when they deserve it, to separate the emotions that belong and should be restricted to oneself from those that should at once be expressed to their initiators, rather than passed on to later and more innocent arrivals. ... We start trying to be wise when we realize that we are not born knowing how to live, but that life is a skill that has to be acquired, like learning to ride a bicycle or play the piano.

Who Can Sleep After a Day of Boarding?

Knots and Crosses, by Ian Rankin
I'd been told I should read Rankin, after my submergence in Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane, and Greg Rucka. Yet this book reminded me most of "River of Darkness" by Rennie Airth, another British mystery I read last year (or the year before? Not sure. I've got to remember to see if Airth has published anything else since!). In both books, the hero is a cop with a traumatic WWII experience in his past, that either comes back to haunt him, or aids him, as he attempts to solve the mystery. Also a neat bit in here that leads the detective to the final victim, reminiscent of "Seven" or "Silence of the Lambs" (plus you never really know if the person who calls in with the clue is an actual person, or perhaps the killer himself!). I thoroughly enjoyed it, although it was a very, very speedy read (at a mere 200 pages, a little shorter than your average mystery), and I'm looking forward to reading more about John Rebus (I'm hoping Gill Templer, with her cool glasses, sticks around!). Looks like there are about 11 books in this series already, so I'll have a few to read before I get caught up.

On the Way Home

Remember Me, by Trezza Azzopardi
A 70-something homeless woman lies seemingly asleep as a young girl brushes over her and steals something, then sneaks away in the night. Determined to get back her belongings, Winnie is jolted into reliving her past, detailing what has brought her to this state; a mentally disturbed mother, a father who couldn't provide, a grandfather whose strictness is unabated, yet whose disappearance during the war is even worse, her lover and his disappearance as well. The people who loved her, yet vanished, those who took advantage of her, or treated her cruelly for reasons beyond her control. Living in New York, I was confronted by homeless people on a daily basis, some more downtrodden than others. And I often thought to myself, "What would I do?" At this point in life, the answer is easy - go home. Throw myself on the mercy of my parents. Sure, it would suck. My mom and I would drive each other insane. But if worse came to worse, and I was unable to pay my rent, or buy food, or continue to live, I could do it. But what if I didn't have that choice? What if my parents were dead? My other relatives vanished when I tried to reach them? The first person narration really drew me into this book, I knew I had to buy it the moment I picked it up. It's not a life one can easily imagine, and the final twist at the end of the novel is almost too cruel to contemplate. A haunting story of a life lost to the vagaries of madness and homelessness, which sadly so often go together. Azzopardi's first novel "A Hiding Place" was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2000, I've definitely got to look that one up.

What I'm Reading Now

Although Maureen tried to convince me to read "The Birth of Venus" along with her, I have somehow managed to resist (OK, I went to the store, almost bought it, but then started reading, and didn't feel pulled in the way I wanted to. Phew!). Instead I've started The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis, which I read high recommendations of on a couple of sites before randomly ordering it from Amazon. Ray Midge's wife runs off with her first husband, with his credit card, his car, and his gun, and he uses his AmEx bills to start on their trail. (Another Western with a similar subject to "The Fruit of Stone" by Mark Spragg which I read at the very end of last year. What'm I doing in Western land again? I'll have to reread Lonesome Dove soon at this rate!!! Not that I'm saying that would in any way be a bad thing...) Read Earlier in the Year and Inadvertently Deleted Post

  • The Well of Lost Plots, [Thursday Next book 3] by Jasper Fforde Clever as always. Fun. Very quick read.
  • Any Human Heart, by William Boyd Loved it. Best book I've read so far this year. Biography of a 1900s renaissance man. Poignant, touching. Made me laugh, made me cry. Wow.
  • Blood Brothers, by Richard Price Intense, violent. Compelling.
  • Picture Palace, by Paul Theroux Bitter, cold. Not a fan.
  • Giving Up the Ghost, a Memoir, by Hilary Mantel Felt like two separate books. Liked book one, memoirs of her childhood. Didn't like part two, reveries about her illness.
  • The Good Doctor, by Damon Galgut Well-written, nice conversational tone. But not, I would say, "an extraordinary parable" as the book jacket proclaims. Good, but not earth-shattering.
  • Perfume, by Patrick Susskind Very impressive book. Succinct, yet detailed. Intriguing.
  • Nothing Remains the Same; Rereading and Remembering, by Wendy Lesser Inspiring. Makes you want to reread books you've loved, makes you want to read for the first time books she loved.
  • Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss Fun.
  • Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, by Al Franken A book that should be required reading before you're allowed to vote.
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