Monday, January 31, 2005

The combination of a couple of late nights and early mornings (and impending sickness) made me seek out less challenging fare last week. Enter Cassandra French's Finishing School for Boys by Eric Garcia. Cassandra French is a successful, single woman who decides that she's sick of the way men treat her so she kidnaps them and instructs them in basic grooming, manners, etc. Things spiral out of control, of course, as more people get involved, including a major Hollywood star. It's an interesting premise and Garcia succeeds at carrying it off mostly because he is a very funny writer with a talent for one liners like, "Lexi had lost even more weight since the last time I'd seen her, and is now officially thin enough to tread water in a hose." It's not believable at all, but like Nice by Jen Sacks, which this book resembles in tone, once you suspend your disbelief a little, it's a fun read.


Monday, January 24, 2005

The last book I read this weekend was How I Paid For College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Music Theater by Marc Acito. It's the story of Eddie, an actor in high school who wants to go to Julliard, but whose father decides he's not going to pay for it. He and his friends dream up more and more illegal ways to get the money, each of which is doomed to failure. Imagine American Pie crossed with Fame. Only gayer. That would be this book. It was funny, even making me laugh out loud a couple of times. "I can't fucking believe it. In the last eight months we've engaged in underage drinking, reckless driving, illegal drug use (on federal property), unlocking and entering, blackmail, fraud, forgery, and embezzlement, and we're getting nailed for grand theft Buddha." It wasn't deep or anything, but it was definitely entertaining.

I was initially just going to skim What's the Matter With Kansas? by Thomas Frank, but his easy, conversational writing style drew me in and I found myself racing through the whole thing. I knew most of his basic arguments about the whole "Red State / Blue State" supposed cultural divide from reading sites which have embraced his work, like Daily Kos, and from seeing him on The Daily Show, but it was interesting to read the history of politics in Kansas and how he translated that to the US as a whole. Most of the book simply lays out the question of why it is that people are voting Republican despite their own best economic interests and doesn't really get to the answer until the end. Basically he says that having the Democrats and Republicans move so close to each other on economic issues simply removed them from the table, allowing people to disregard them as a basis for deciding which candidate to vote for. He shows how conservative Christians jumped into this gap, firing up their base and controlling the debate on abortion and gay rights. And of course the moderate Republicans who are in office don't seem to mind all that much because they get their tax cuts and the New Deal gets rolled back piece by piece, all for toeing the party line. They get richer, their constituency gets poorer, and it seems we all lose. Lovely.

This weekend I took a short break from Vanity Fair (which I am loving) to clear a couple of library books off my shelf. The first was 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com by Mike Daisey. This is a book based on his one man show about his job at Amazon. He started there in the late 1990s and his stories about the customer service department and the oddballs and misfits that Amazon courted to work there are very funny. The book gets a little less funny and more angry as he tells how he moved up into business development and discovered that the funky online bookstore he thought he was working for was becoming just another business selling everything under the sun and run by the MBA business types he'd disliked in college, all the while sensing the spectacular crash that would level many start-ups. As much about discovering himself as it is about Amazon, it's a funny, quick read.


Tuesday, January 18, 2005

I tagged along with some friends to a wedding this weekend (check out what the groom wore under his kilt) and had some time while they were attending to picture taking and bridesmaid duties to read When the Nines Roll Over and Other Stories by David Benioff. You'll recall I picked his 25th Hour as one of the best books I read last year and this one might make this year's list. Benioff shows off a range of characters and situations, everyone from a record producer in Los Angeles to a young Russian soldier in Chechnya, making each full and believable. There's a quote in the first story that I feel captures the overall theme of the whole collection: "A few boys about high school age set off a round of fireworks. Everyone watched the rockets hurtle into the dark sky above the brightly lit street, higher and higher and higher, disappearing into the blackness, everyone still watching, their faces upturned to the nighttime sky, waiting for the rockets to burst, for petals of blue flame to drift slowly downward. Everyone watched for a full minute, until it became certain that the rockets were duds." He seems to understand perfectly that futility - the high hopes we send off and watch expectantly only to have them fail to deliver. By describing the nuances of each experience through such a wide range of characters he makes them distinctive and affecting so the stories avoid feeling repetitive despite the similar theme.

I'm seriously going to have to rethink my position on short stories if I keep reading such great collections.

I've had Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions by Ben Mezrich on my to-be-read list for years but decided to bump it higher when I saw Daisy picked it as one of her top books of the year. It is excellent - fast paced and suspenseful and reads more like a thriller than nonfiction. The students assumed aliases and disguises and partied with sports stars and high rollers on the weekends, all the while taking millions from the casinos at blackjack by counting cards in teams.

It showed me a side of Vegas that I never experienced growing up. When you live there, the casinos and gambling in general are so much a part of the landscape that they just become background. You avoid the Strip and Downtown because of the tourists, maybe throw your change from getting groceries into the video poker machines on your way out from the local Albertsons, or blow $5 at the nickel slots when you go out to eat on the weekends. The casino floor becomes just another maze to navigate to get to the bowling alley, movie theaters, or arcade. We used to make fun of the tourists sitting there losing all their money and joke about how we should thank them for funding our educations. It actually took me a long time to get used to not having to run the video poker gauntlet to get anywhere once I moved away. I certainly won't look at the casino floor the same way again after reading this book though. I'll be thinking about the Eye in the Sky and looking for young, ethnic high rollers who might be headed back to Boston with a hundred grand strapped to their chests.


Thursday, January 13, 2005

Some books I read feel very familiar because, like with The Blue Castle, I read them years ago but forgot. Others, like An Old Fashioned Girl, are familiar because of their resemblance to another book (in that case Mansfield Park). And then there's Plan B by Jonathan Tropper which is familiar but I don't know why. Almost all the way through I had the feeling I'd read it before, but I'm pretty sure I haven't. Maybe I felt that way because I saw a few similarities with Microserfs and High Fidelity. Maybe I knew what would happen with the Darth Vader mask because it was telegraphed pretty obviously. Or maybe it felt familiar because I've had similar thoughts or conversations - like the bit about the difficulty of making new friends after 30. I know I've had that conversation more than once, but did I arrive at that conclusion myself or did I get it from reading this book when it first came out? Or from somewhere else entirely? I don't know and it's bugging me why everything in this book seemed so very familiar.

Anyway. It was funny and fast paced and I liked it, but not as much as The Book of Joe.


Monday, January 10, 2005

I had a free afternoon on Saturday, so I finally visited the new Santa Clara City Library to pick up a book that we don't carry. While I was there I grabbed a couple of YA novels that I read that day. The first one was Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix. This is a cute story of Cinderella after she's engaged to the Prince and moved into the castle. Turns out the prince is a bore, the activities are mindless, and her tutors are determined to stamp out her personality. I liked this one a lot and it made me remember how much I like Haddix's books.

The next book was The Geography Club by Brent Hartinger about a group of gay students in high school in a small town who form a club, but to avoid being hassled about being gay, decide to call it the Geography Club thinking that no one but them would join it. The usual cliches are there: homophobic jocks (one of them in the closet), an influential reverend, an outspoken health teacher, the social outcast, etc. but it never really felt too contrived. Maybe because it was more about the students finding and supporting each other. Or maybe because there wasn't the usual big showdown with the whole town or a typical happy ending. Sure, lessons are learned about tolerance, but it wasn't too heavy handed, which was nice.

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn is, of course, a recommendation from Daisy. It's a wonderful story of a fictional island nation off the coast of South Carolina that reveres its founder, the author of the sentence "the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog." When letters from the sentence start falling from a public monument, the leaders of the island determine that Nollop is sending them a message from beyond the grave that those letters are no longer to be used. The book starts out lighthearted but as the letters continue to drop and people find themselves without the ability to communicate, the social order breaks down. The last half of the book is taken up with the frantic search for another sentence that uses the entire alphabet but in fewer letters, thus proving that the council is wrong about Nollop. I spotted the sentence right away, but that didn't take away from the drama and sense of urgency surrounding Ella and her friends and family as they struggled to keep it together, communicate with one another, and save their island. The writing is very clever and half the fun of the book is watching the linguistic gymnastics the residents of Nollop use as their options dwindle down to their last few letters.

When I described the book to my roommate she excitedly borrowed it from me to use as a writing exercise for her high school students.


Friday, January 07, 2005

Let me preface this entry with a few comments:
1. I never ever read self help books.
2. Ever.
3. Especially ones about dating or being single.
4. No really. Ever.
5. I like being single.
6. In the past Greg Behrendt has nearly made me pee my pants from laughing.

Yes, it's He's Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo of Sex and the City fame.

I really want to say this is total "no-DUH" advice for women on guys and anyone who doesn't know this stuff is pretty stupid, but then I remember a particular friend who dated several men straight out of the book. Or one who married a guy squarely in the "freak" category. Or another who let her boyfriend call her stupid in front of their friends. Or one who... you get the idea. It's funny but didn't make me laugh out loud or anything, although I did crack a smile once or twice. It was just so not for me. However, if you're one of those women who find excuses for bad behavior from guys, then it's definitely for you.


Thursday, January 06, 2005

Name All the Animals by Alison Smith was gorgeous. It's a memoir of the author's three years after her older brother died and how she and her family dealt with that loss. But it's about more than that - it's about growing up in a deeply religious community and attending a Catholic private school when you've lost your faith and about Alison discovering her sexuality and falling in love for the first time and about how different people grieve. It's a tribute to her brother who was loved by everyone and a reclamation of her life which she felt wasn't worth living after he died. She was only 15 when Roy died in a horrible traffic accident and because they were very close (so close that her mother called them by a combined name "Alroy") she lost her belief in God, or rather, she says it was more like God left her and took Roy with him. The writing is lovely, emotional and evocative without being difficult or overly sentimental:

"We bumped around the house for a good six months, stunned, hungry, longing, waiting for the runners, unable to find the door back to our lives. I returned to school, grew two inches and lost ten pounds. Mother climbed Mount Marcy - twice. The new Saint Jude joined us at the kitchen table. But nothing really changed. Mary Elizabeth still mooned over Jimmy-the-Lead-Guitar-Player. I still sneaked out the back door every night and visited the fort. My parents said their daily prayers, and every Sunday we all dressed up and went to Mass, and after a while, even God's long silence did not seem that strange. We remained removed, one foot in this world, one foot in the next with Roy.
I checked his bed every morning. Just in case."

The book comes to a natural close when she is 18 and while I would like to know what happened to her after that, I didn't feel like it was incomplete. I'm looking forward to her second book and am going to try and find the pieces she wrote for McSweeney's.


Monday, January 03, 2005

The next book I read yesterday was Slumming by Kristen D. Randle, a recommendation from Daisy that intrigued me because the three main characters are all LDS, which is pretty rare in fiction. Basically, I agree with Daisy (big surprise) - Sam has the more compelling storyline, but switching viewpoints makes the girls just as much a part of the story and keeps his story from taking over too much. Initially I felt more sympathy for the "projects" they all picked because I've been on the end of a well-meaning pity/temporary friendship way too often, but Randle does a good job of showing how their attitudes change and what starts out as a patronizing competition turns into actual complicated relationships and personal growth for most of the people involved.

Yesterday I read a couple of quick books - the first of which was Beginning the World by Karen Armstrong. This is the sequel to Through the Narrow Gate and was written in 1983, covering the 12 or so years after she left the convent. This last year she wrote another version of those years (The Spiral Staircase), one that she felt was more accurate to the way she felt about those years, so I was interested to read this one and compare the differences in the accounts. The first thing I noticed is that there is not as much anger in this book toward her psychiatrists who consistently misdiagnosed her epilepsy. This is probably due to the fact that Beginning ends right after she begins taking the drugs for her condition and she hasn't really realized exactly how badly her health was mishandled. Although there is a passage where she does finally yell at one psychiatrist who told her that having a baby (!) would make her "outgrow" her hallucinations. The hell? The second big difference is her inclusion of her love life in this book and of having sex for the first time and the mental and physical anguish that decision and its aftermath caused her. She ends up with a guy who seems nearly as screwed up as she is and they are together for quite some time, which she only mentions in passing in Staircase. The most important events are covered in Staircase though and often in more depth, with more emotion and a greater understanding of her condition and religious beliefs.

The first book I read in the new year was Resolution by Denise Mina, the last book in her trilogy. The main storyline from the first book picks up again in this one because the bad guy is going to trial and Maureen is called as a witness. And her sister is having a baby and refusing to believe their dad abused Maureen so Maureen feels responsible to protect the baby from him. There is a murder subplot that feels a bit too much like filler and while it had ties to her situation, overall it felt like a distraction. The humor is still there though, and while I thought the ending was a little too pat, it wraps things up with all the bad guys getting punished satisfactorily.

2004 year end summation:

This year I read 112 books and abandoned or postponed 5.
Among that 112 were:
24 non fiction
21 science fiction
21 mystery
7 short story collections
and 1 play

I couldn't decide on just a top 10, so this is a top 15. And because I couldn't decide on ranking after #3, I'm just going to list them alphabetically by title.

1. 25th Hour by David Benioff
I'm not sure if this one should really be on the list. I enjoyed it a lot and I love the movie. But it got the nod because it's well written and interesting and has stuck in my mind longer than other books on my list.

2. 1968 by Mark Kurlansky
This was a powerful book to read this year because there are so many parallels to be drawn between 1968 and 2004. I was both inspired by the passion and conviction of the students of the world and depressed by how little has changed.

3. Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gould
This was the first great book I read this year. I love how it totally transports the reader to the turn of the century vaudeville circuit.

4. The Confusion by Neal Stephenson
I don't know of any other writer who could make the development of the stock exchange and the politics and science swirling around Europe at that time so entertaining and exciting.

5. Feed by M. T. Anderson
This is the only YA novel I included on this list, although there were one or two others that could've been here. I picked this one because of the fascinating glimpses of the future and how eerily right they feel given our present.

6. Ghost Writer by John Harwood
This is my #3 best book of the year. It's so creepy and the short stories included are fantastic. And no other book this year scared the pants off me like this one did.

7. Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart
And this is my #1. It was an easy call, really. I absolutely love Sean Stewart and this is his funniest and best book to date. It's got all the Big Ideas in it - family, self, life, death, love... plus it scared me nearly as much as Ghost Writer.

8. Shape of Snakes by Minette Walters
This one kept me on my toes the whole way through, wondering which character to believe and what was the truth. The ending felt true to the buildup and was at the same time a complete surprise.

9. The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel
This is a beautiful meditation on love, full of big ideas about religion and philosophy. I think I cried all the way through it.

10. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
I firmly believe DFW is a man who can make anything funny. And when people or events actually are funny, he can make me fall on the floor laughing.

11. The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffeneger
This is a glorious love story in the best sense of the word.

12. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
Alan Moore might be the best discovery I made this year.

13. Watchmen by Alan Moore
I had to put both of these on here and as it was I debated about whether I should put From Hell on here instead, but this one won out because I love the alternate history aspect.

14. White Jazz by James Ellroy
Jazz describes it perfectly - the rhythm of the language and the sharp beats of the action. This is a truly great book and my #2 pick of the year.

15. You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett
These are short stories, each of which hit me hard. They are delicate and wrenching and made me regret wasting so many years disliking short stories on principle.


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