Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Maybe it was because it was Pride weekend or something, but the gayness continued with Not The Only One a book of lesbian and gay YA short stories edited by Tony Grima.

Now, I have a few issues with short stories. I have read some fantastic ones (The Lottery, To Build a Fire, Nightfall, The Lady or the Tiger, etc) but for the most part I much prefer getting lost in a novel. Many modern short stories I've read seem to be either understated with small, but supposedly life-altering, turning points, or they are self-consciously arty and pretentious and it's all about playing with the form. The same can be said for modern fiction as well, but I guess I notice it more in short stories because they are compressed by the limitations of space and I don't have the time to get used to the author and her style (although the short exposure to some styles in certain short stories is definitely a Good Thing). There are some great short stories being written (Adam Haslett comes to mind, as does DFW) but I have found them to be the exception to my usual preference.

But when it comes to YA fiction and short stories, authors and publishers assume that teenagers won't put up with all that crap and they just tell the freakin' story. Not that there isn't depth or character growth or any of that in YA books, but things seem to get dialed back a bit; the story is left to shine (or fail) on its merits. And with the impatience and short attention span that has flourished in teenagers (and adults, to some extent - internet, video games, etc) the story has to be engaging to hold their interest. I find YA novels and stories to be a quick palate cleanser; they distract me from the last thing I read, good or bad, are quick and filling without being too heavy, and don't require a huge commitment. Which perfectly describes Not the Only One. These are stories with kids coming to terms with gay family members, teachers, friends, or with being gay themselves. Not all the stories are happy - several are very dark and some are bittersweet, but there are enough moments of joy and love to make the whole experience pretty positive. The stories themselves aren't anything new, but they are well-told, with appealing narrators and characters who have to come to terms with homosexuality in their lives.


Monday, June 28, 2004

Next up this weekend was a YA novel called My Heartbeat by Garret Freymann-Weyr, which we have cataloged as Weyr, Garret. OCLC says that's correct, but the UK record has it as Freymann-Weyr, Garret, which I thought was right. But hey, I haven't taken cataloging, so what do I know? Anyway. The book is pretty good. It's about a 14 year old girl who is disconnected from her peers, but close friends with her older brother and his best friend, both of whom are pretty unsure about their sexuality. When she asks them about a comment a girl at school made about them being a couple, she inadvertently causes a big change in the dynamic between the three of them. While I didn't necessarily buy her sudden discovery of her talent as an artist (why wouldn't she have been drawing for years by that age?) and her complete naivete about social laws and conventions seemed too forced, the relationships seemed very real and the uncertainty of her brother and the friend were refreshingly complex and not resolved in a neat little bow by the end of the book.

Next I skimmed through Contra/Diction: New Queer Male Fiction and Mondo Barbie, neither of which were particularly strong. There was only one story in Contra/Diction that really impressed me and that was mostly because it was political and set during the Gulf War and had very strong parallels between our current situation and then. The rest were fairly forgettable and I skipped a lot of them after only reading the first page. Barbie had a bunch of poetry in addition to the short stories. The best entries were the A.M. Holmes story that I'd read previously and a science fiction story about murders in a religious sect where all the members had plastic surgery to make them look identical - and like Barbie. The other stories weren't horrible, but not terribly interesting and the poetry was stuff I would've found very deep and meaningful when I was in college. But really, the repetition of themes surrounding Barbies just became a little tedious. I guess these are two examples of why I've always disliked short story collections...

I picked up The Shape of Snakes by Minette Walters (hardcover) for $1.99 at the grocery store. The best part about that deal? It's really, really good. Like, I thought she couldn't top Acid Row, but I think this one might have done it. Maybe I liked it so much because the first person narrator is unreliable and suspiciously motivated and reminded me of Daphne du Maurier's narrators (although hers tend to be much more naive and confused). She is, we find out over the course of the book, manipulative, possibly mentally ill, and occasionally cruel, but her cause is noble. Or is it? Justice or revenge... or both? I truly did not guess the ending until it was laid out, which made me happy because so many mysteries I read telegraph everything. I really like how she included correspondence and newspaper stories and official reports between the chapters to slowly fill the reader in on the characters and the 20 years that passed between the murder and the current story.

I don't remember her earlier books being this good, but between this one and Acid Row, she's now definitely on my list of must-read authors.


Thursday, June 24, 2004

You know what? Alan Dean Foster isn't the great writer I remember him being. It's been ages since I've read one of his books and either my standards have gotten higher and my tastes more refined or he's gotten worse because Flinx's Folly is really lacking in the style department. Story-wise it's okay - a fairly typical Flinx adventure. You know, all imminent threat to the universe, many people trying to kill and/or study him, Pip killing someone by spitting venom, etc. But wow, he just doesn't have the command of the language that, say, William Gibson has. It's not a horrible book and didn't make me roll my eyes or anything, but it was definitely on the merely competent side of good. It's a disappointing discovery because I've considered his The Damned trilogy as one of my favorites for years and now I suspect when I read it again I will find it wholly ordinary. Maybe I've just grown out of him. There have been many authors that I once adored and devoured everything they wrote who now I can't stand. Richard North Patterson. James Patterson. Mary Higgins Clark, even. That last one still baffles me and I can only blame the raging hormones of adolescence for clouding my brain. So now I have this urge to dig into the boxes of books in the garage for those I loved in high school and college but haven't read since to see just how crappy they actually are. On the plus side, this will definitely help me downsize my collection...


Wednesday, June 23, 2004

It's pretty rare that I don't finish a book. I have been known to return library books unread or even to buy used books that I later get rid of without ever reading anything more than the flyleaf or back cover summary (this happens a lot with the ones I get at those library sales where you buy a grocery bag for $5 and then get to fill it with whatever you want). But usually if I have made it past the first 50 pages I'll finish it. It may take me a while, but it will happen eventually.

So when I say that I'm returning Maggie By the Book by Kasey Michaels after slogging through 100 pages, you'll understand just how irritated I was by this book. Actually, to be more precise, by one of the characters in the book. This is the second book in what I assume will be a series. I bought a paperback copy of the first book a year or so ago because the premise seemed cute and it looked like a fun, quick mystery read. The series is about a mystery writer (and former romance novelist) whose two main characters (a Regency-era detective and his sidekick) appear in her living room in the present day. And it just so happens that there is a murder and the writer becomes a suspect. See? Silly and fun. Well, sort of. Because the detective is one of the more annoying characters I've encountered. It's made worse because everyone apparently loves him despite his being a completely pompous ass all the damn time. I finished the first book (Maggie Needs an Alibi) though before tossing it in the giveaway bag.

So why did I check out the second one? Basically because I liked everyone else in the damn book. Maggie is neurotic and sarcastic and reading about her trying to write love scenes made me giggle. Her publisher is a hoot, her editor is funny, and most of the other minor characters are appealing. Even the sidekick has his moments. I thought perhaps in the second book Alex and Sterling (the detective and sidekick) would have settled down a little bit and Alex wouldn't be as annoying. Also, this second book is set at a romance writers convention and I guess I was hoping for another Die For Love, which I love. Neither was the case. I found myself lying in bed last night, actually watching commercials rather than reading. Once I realized it was because I really couldn't care less about the book, despite liking Maggie and Bernie and all the others, I knew it was time to admit defeat.

So if pompous assholes are your thing then this is the series for you. As for me, I have Pip and Flinx and the threat of the destruction of the universe waiting for me.


Monday, June 21, 2004

I picked up I Love Everybody (and Other Atrocious Lies) by Laurie Notaro at the David Sedaris signing and read it yesterday. I've liked her previous books, especially her first, The Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club. In this one, Notaro's essays revolve around her work, with a few strong entries involving her family. There were quite a few pages that had me laughing out loud: her grandmother's love of Lifetime, her unwise decision to wear a white t-shirt and white bra to Disneyland, her editor troubles, etc. As always the appeal is that she most definitely does not have her shit together. But in a really funny way.

Saturday afternoon I read Death Gets a Time-out, the fourth "Mommy-Track Mystery" from Ayelet Waldman. I think I've missed the third one, but it didn't seem to matter to the ongoing storyline. This time she's officially partnered up with the ex-cop (reminiscent of the guy in Patricia Cornwell's series) as private investigators. Again, as in the first two, I spotted the killer about halfway through and guessed most of the plot twists well before they happened. And again, it's the ambivalent mothering that rings the most true and is the primary reason why I keep reading these. (It's ever-so-tempting to read too much of her real life situation into this area though. Used to be a public defender, has 3 kids, husband writes all night, etc...) One thing that's begun to bug me though is that in 3 of the 4 I've read now the killer has been female (two of them in this one). I don't know if this is misogyny or if she thinks it would be easier to believe her physically tiny heroine taking on women. Don't know. Maybe I'll try her regular fiction to see if it's better stripped of the mystery framework.

Saturday morning I read Terry Pratchett's A Hat Full of Sky, the continuing adventures of Tiffany from The Wee Free Men, which I loved. This one is equally good, with Tiffany now in training to become a full-fledged witch. In this book she has been targeted by an entity that wants to take over her mind and it's up to Granny Weatherwax and the Wee Free Men to help her defeat it. There are some funny parallels with adolescence and the WFM are hysterical, as always. Tiffany herself is a great character; she is observant and practical and strong. I really hope Pratchett keeps writing about her.

I tend to lump Michael Connelly in with Dennis Lehane and Ridley Pearson (and Jeffrey Deaver too, I suppose, but I'm leaving him out because he gives me the creeps) because I discovered them all around the same time. He's always come last in that little trilogy though. I think it's because I like Lehane's and Pearson's main characters more than Harry Bosch, Connelly's detective. In Lost Light which is not his newest, but the one right before it, Harry has left the force (I remember reading the one where it happened but I can't quite remember why he did) and starts working on an unsolved murder case from a few years ago. Certain parts of the mystery were pretty easy to guess (I mean, duh, of course it was an inside job at the bank!), and I knew the terrorism angle was a red herring right when it first came up. That part started to feel a little forced, but Harry got to say to the Department of Homeland Security guy what a lot of us feel, so I forgive Connelly for it. It was good, but nothing really shocked me or made my head spin like Lehane and Pearson have done. I guess Connelly remains in third place.


Thursday, June 17, 2004

This will be the first in a long string of rather fluffy mysteries, science fiction, etc. It's summer and I don't feel like using my brain for a while.

So. Muletrain to Maggody by Joan Hess. I've been a fan of her Claire Malloy series since college but it wasn't until just a few years ago that I started the Maggody series too. I quickly caught up though because they are very entertaining. This is the latest entry and by now half the fun is keeping up with all the various people and how they interact with those from out of town (in this case Civil War reinactors). As always, Arly is around to keep things from getting too out of hand and this time she even gets to have some fun herself.


Tuesday, June 15, 2004

I got my copy of David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again at my (now sadly defunct) favorite used bookstore. It's a large, bright sunny yellow paperback and won me over on the publishing information page (am I the only one who reads those?) with the comment, "The following essays have appeared previously (in somewhat different [and sometimes way shorter] forms)." Hee. Knowing DFW's penchant for excess verbiage (something in him brings out my thesaurus tendencies), I can only imagine the various magazine editors and their respective editing nightmares. There are only seven essays, and I'm going to comment on each one separately.

1) "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley"
This actually contains one of DFW's recurring themes: that of a precocious child or youth dealing with entering a larger world. It's impossible not to get flashbacks to Infinite Jest and its tennis games while reading this essay of growing up as a successful junior tennis player and the complex interaction between the players, the ball, the court, and the weather. Funniest moment: the story about getting caught by a tornado while practicing and being blown against a fence, leaving a cartoon shape in it.

2) "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction"
This is the centerpiece of the book and one that still has me thinking and wondering. His central argument is that irony is holding fiction (especially postmodernism and Image-Fiction) in the US captive and that television, while being fun to watch, has helped trap us in this self-reflective and meta state which makes everything ironic. He talks about how television feeds on irony at the same time as it exposes it. And how that knowledge and interaction affects fiction and fiction writers by permeating their styles and viewpoints. It's a fascinating connection to make and one that I think he pulls off rather well. He even discusses one possible solution and its merits (while admitting his own "aura" of irony after dissecting it) before concluding that it doesn't seem possible to escape this situation, but not knowing if that means he has a lack of vision and is too caught up in the irony himself to see a way out or if there is a true state of exhaustion in US fiction. Either way, it makes for a fascinating argument.

3) "Getting Away From Already Being Pretty Much Away From It All"
This is his essay for Harper's about the Illinois State Fair and it is the funniest of the bunch. He pokes fun equally at his adopted East Coast pretensions and the Midwest life he came from on display at the fair. It has some brilliant set-pieces like the baton twirling contest (a few paragraphs of which had me gasping for breath because I was laughing so hard), the viewing of the pigs, and the clogging competition that are interspersed with his running commentary on the events and his brief interviews with workers and fair attendees. Very, very funny stuff.

4) "Greatly Exaggerated"
This was written for the Harvard Book Review and is a review of a book that has to deal with poststructuralist theory, specifically the argument over the death of the concept of the author. It's a bit heavy on the litcrit terminology (and made me briefly glad I wasn't an English major in college), but I was still able to follow it. He has the ability to cut through traditional academese and to bring in the viewpoint of the average reader (basically, "For those of us civilians who know in our gut that writing is an act of communication between one human being and another, the whole question seems sort of arcane." Yeah) while still providing an astute and enthusiastic analysis and criticism of the work.

5) "David Lynch Keeps His Head"
This one concerns a visit he made to the set of "Lost Highway" but he goes beyond just another set puff piece (it was written for Premiere) into Lynch's entire oeuvre, discussing recurring themes and analyzing each movie and what works and doesn't and how Lynch, more than Tarantino, has influenced modern cinema. Despite not having seen "Lost Highway" (or, for that matter, most of his other movies) I still found it fascinating because the discussion of themes remains relevant when applied to "Mullholland Drive" which is one that I have not only seen but loved. The most interesting thing was his dismissal of the traditional critics' take on Lynch - that of surrealism and horror lying underneath the placid everyday existence - and instead proffering his own take: both exist within us all and Lynch makes us face that which is why we find it uncomfortable to watch his films. Of course, the essay is also very funny, especially when he rips into Balthazar Getty.

6) "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness"
Yeah. It reads as a professional tennis primer and profile of Michael Joyce, with added insights into the nature of professional athletes in general and how we, as the audience, experience sports. This was the one I thought I would enjoy the least, but learning about the structure of the sport and reading about how in awe he was of these guys was actually really interesting.

7) "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"
Similar to #3 in that we get a lot of DFW mixed in with his running commentary on an experience that is foreign to him - in this case going on a Caribbean cruise. Again, it is terrifically funny, particularly when he talks about the bathroom or his dinner table companions. And it wouldn't be a DFW essay without musings on what they're really offering (the directive to be pampered and have all your needs taken care of) and our nature as humans to adapt to luxury and still demand more.

I'm taking a week off from shows and going to author readings instead. In addition to Lolly Winston on Saturday, I've got Audrey Niffeneger (The Time Traveller's Wife) tonight, David Foster Wallace on Thursday and David Sedaris on Friday. Sedaris' new collection, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, is less laugh out loud funny than Me Talk Pretty One Day but what it sacrifices in laughter, it more than makes up for in complex emotions. His family is front and center in this one and his relations with them provide moments of both humor and sadness. Many of these pieces have been published previously and I had read several of them before, including the one about his brother's wedding (which the first time I read it had me rolling), the slumber party (ditto), and his visit to his sister Tiffany (more tears than laughter). Like his other books, this one is a very quick read, but has a depth that may surprise you.

I'm going to go backwards with these next three books because I have the most to say about the first one and I want to get the other two out of the way. Oh, and I'm postponing Byron: Life and Legend and Blue Blood because I'm not in the mood for either anymore but I still want to finish them eventually.

Okay, so Lolly Winston, author of Good Grief is coming to the library this Saturday for a reading and signing and since I had her book on my to-be-read list, I thought I should read it before she came. It is a quick read, but not light. For the first 100 pages or so, while the main character is consumed with grief over her husband's death from cancer, the tears were pretty close and I suspect if I'd been alone in my room I would have given in. Winston does a good job of keeping the character sympathetic, and manages to avoid making her pathetic or too self-pitying. I loved the descriptions of the cheesecakes and other baked goods the character invents and I wish she'd included a recipe or two.


Tuesday, June 01, 2004

I breezed through Wigfield by Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello, and Stephen Colbert, a slight, but funny, fake nonfiction book about the small town of Wigfield, which is actually just a small shantytown of brothels and funeral homes which formed on top of a toxic waste dump by a dam. The best parts were the photos of the residents, all played by the authors in various disguises. Who knew Stephen Colbert would make such a fetching stripper named Raven? Hee! The book is very much in the style of their previous works and collaborations (Strangers Without Candy, The Daily Show, etc) and while I didn't exactly laugh out loud, I did read the whole thing with a smile and the occasional chuckle.

I'm currently in the middle of a big ass biography of Lord Byron, a collection of essays on the future of science (although I may just skim the rest because someone else has a hold on it), and a collection of nonfiction essays by David Foster Wallace. I'm gonna need something fun and frivolous soon...

Next was Don't Look Now by Daphne du Maurier, a collection of five short stories/novellas. The title story is definitely the strongest of the five - it made me laugh on the first page and got progressively more creepy as it went on. And even though I knew what was going to happen (from seeing the excellent movie adaptation) I was still hoping for the best. The second story, "The Breakthrough" was okay, but I totally guessed what was going to happen. "Not After Midnight" is a little coy in what it's getting at, but again, I saw it coming. I had problems with "A Border-Line Case," mostly because I didn't like the narrator. I thought she was a complete drama queen and the shocking ending wasn't so shocking because (are we sensing a theme?) I saw it coming a mile away. The most irritating was "The Way Of the Cross" though because it didn't seem to go anywhere. I liked the shifting viewpoints at the beginning, but all the characters were so disagreeable that I starting hoping all the accidents would mean they'd all end up dead (which didn't happen).

I've fallen behind a little, so it's time to play catch up. Last weekend I read Guardians on the Horizon by Elizabeth Peters. Instead of the continuing storyline of the Emersons, she added an episode in their past - a return to the city where they found Nefret (pre-romance between Ramses and Nefret). It was definitely more plot driven than the previous installment in the series and it was quick moving and exciting. A couple of things felt off, but I'm not sure if I was projecting backward from where I know the characters end up or if it I just haven't read the previous books recently enough to know what fits. This was a side journey; it didn't add to the general timeline or character growth at all. For a side journey it was entertaining, but not essential.


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