Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Another Rob Thomas novel, Doing Time: Notes from the Undergrad was next. This one consists of ten short stories of kids in high school completing the community service that's required of them before they graduate. Some have their eyes opened, their prejudices challenged, or their lives changed. Others remain steadfastly focused on their own lives and don't learn anything. A couple of the stories are really heartbreaking and one or two are pretty funny. Worth a read.


Friday, April 22, 2005

So how excited was I when I found out that Rob Thomas, creator of two of my favorite TV shows ever (the unfairly cancelled and sorely missed Cupid and the fantastic Veronica Mars), used to write YA novels? Very. We have a few of them here and last night I read two of them. His first novel was Rats Saw God about a high school student in danger of not graduating. In order to do so his counselor makes him write a 100 page essay on a topic of his choice. Following the saying, "write what you know," he writes about his parents' divorce, falling in love, and why he stopped caring about school. A lot of the humor (especially the school club Grace Order of Dadaists, or GOD) and the dialogue reminded me of The Obnoxious Jerks, one of my favorite YA novels. It's a funny and touching book and I think I'm going to get myself a copy to put in my YA section at home.

Next I read Green Thumb which is one of his later books and aimed at a younger audience. The main character, Grady, is a thirteen-year-old genius who joins a botany project in Brazil for the summer. When he gets there he discovers the new experimental trees the botanists have engineered are actually toxic to the environment, but gets chased out of camp and has to hide with a local tribe of Indians while trying to come up with a way to stop the project. There's also some wish fulfillment of course; Grady fills out over the summer and gets revenge on the bullies back at home. It's actually pretty dark for a kids book, with several deaths and environmental issues taking center stage.

I've got one more I'm in the middle of (and loving) and a couple more on hold. And Veronica Mars just got picked up for a second season. Awesome.

I was just going to start Hello To All That: A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace by John Falk, but I ended up staying up late to finish it. Falk splits his narrative, alternating chapters between his struggle with depression that began when he was 12 and his time in Sarajevo as a freelance war correspondent with a year's supply of Zoloft packed in a sock. He describes as best he can the disconnect and despair he experienced all through his teenage years and the amazing turnaround Zoloft provided him. It's a testament to his writing that these chapters stand up to those that cover his year in Sarajevo, although once he meets the "antisniper" Vlado they do become less compelling. We learn about his family and their support of him and how he discovered that just because his brain chemistry was normalized by the drug, it didn't mean he automatically knew how to function and connect with people again. It was a quick read and I enjoyed it a lot.

Man, Blogger was being annoying yesterday so I didn't get to post about the other books I read on Pajama Day. After finishing The Big Nowhere I resisted the temptation to start LA Confidential immediately because I had a lot of library books to get through. First of those was The Ninth Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen because it's got a bunch of holds on it. I'm not quite sure why. It's decent enough, I suppose, but I think it's another one of those books that sounded interesting to me when I heard about it, but that turned out less than I'd imagined once I read it. Louis Drax is a nine year who has had a life threatening accident every year and this last one landed him in a coma. The book is alternately narrated by Louis (in his coma) and the doctor caring for him. There's a mystery as to what exactly happened to him and why.

I liked it okay, but ultimately I didn't really feel a connection with any of the characters. The mystery wasn't all that hard to figure out and knowing what happened made the doctor (and most of the men in the book) really annoying. Is anyone going to read this book? I'm going to spoil it. I knew from the first that the mother was responsible and seeing the men all behave like lovesick idiots in front of her made me angry at how stupid they were. And she was the kind of person I hate - someone who tells lies and manipulates others just to get sympathy and attention. It's almost a toss-up as to who I dislike more: those who do that or those who fall for it. Unfortunately the book is packed full of both types. Luckily it was short or I probably wouldn't have finished it.

I should've stuck with Ellroy.


Thursday, April 21, 2005

I had one of those days yesterday where I just didn't want to get out of bed, so I called in sick and worked toward my goal of staying in my pajamas all day. Honestly, (and I hope my boss isn't reading this) I just wanted to finish The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy because it was getting good and I couldn't wait any longer to see how it all played out. The plot was as convoluted as always and involved a string of ghastly murders and the formation of a grand jury to investigate Communism in Hollywood. Corruption and vice are rampant, most of the police force is compromised by scandal, and the heroes and villains are hard to tell apart - vintage Ellroy. This is the second of his Los Angeles quartet and I wish I'd read them all in order, one after the other (something I'll be doing in the near future). I know if I had, Buzz Meeks' death in LA Confidential would have meant more to me than it did. And I probably would've realized earlier that Dudley Smith is the unifying factor, the personification of all the corruption and strong arm police tactics that were on the way out as science and technology began to replace them.

The writing in The Big Nowhere isn't as stripped down and frantic as it is in White Jazz. That's not to say it lacks momentum because once the main characters join forces, it's non-stop action until the end. I love Ellroy's way with words; he manages to make his descriptions evocative but tough as with this sketch of a witness: "Danny smelled stale sweat, leaves and mouthwash on the man, like the knee-length overcoat he was wearing was his permanent address." Isn't that a great line? Anyway. He makes you care about these incredibly flawed characters and their lives and, okay, I admit it, I cried when Danny... well, I don't want to spoil anything. The books are so dark and intense but there's such a rush that comes from reading them. I don't know quite how to describe it. But he leaves most crime writers in his dust, that's for sure.


Wednesday, April 13, 2005

While there are things I dislike about working at a library, if you're a reader like me the perks manage to make up for a lot of that dissatisfaction. For all the problems we've encountered in the process of becoming a merged city/university library, I love having instant access to all the university materials. In addition, with the merger, we became members of a large consortium of libraries (through Link +) which means easy access to pretty much any book you can think of. If we don't have it, someone will and I can get it quickly and for free.

All this is by way of introducing Happy Baby by Stephen Elliott which I was able to get through Link + after reading about it on several lit blogs (which seem to have become my latest source of titles to read). The subject matter in this book seems to belie the title; there is nothing happy about this story. It begins with Theo visiting an old girlfriend in Chicago and each successive chapter moves back in time. We discover Theo likes to be dominated and hurt and as we move backward through his life we find out why that is. We follow him to when he was a ward of the state and learn about the abuse he suffered at the hands of adults and the other kids in the system. It's truly heartbreaking stuff. Appropriately enough, the book begins with a quotation from J. T. Leroy, whose The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things covers similar territory. While I appreciated the structure and writing, Elliott's book lacks some of the immediacy and rawness of Leroy's, which serves to rob it of some emotional impact. It's possible Elliott's restraint came with the age and distance (this book, like his others, has been described as semiautobiographical) that Leroy lacked when his were written. Like with Leroy, I can't say I loved it or enjoyed it, but I thought it was well written and affecting.


Monday, April 11, 2005

I was on a roll, in the mood, ready for another good book, so rather than risk ruining it (and thus being forced to do some cleaning instead) I pulled out Home Land by Sam Lipsyte which I knew I'd love and have been saving for the right time. Well, I was right - I did love it. I settled in and spent the afternoon laughing my way through it. It's basically a series of hysterical updates to the Eastern Valley High School Alumni Newsletter from a man who simply did not "pan out", describing his dead end life, ex-girlfriend, stoner best friend, and various other acquaintances. If I start quoting favorite passages I'd be here all day, so here's the first one that made me totally lose it:

"Yes, fellow alums, we're boasting bright lights aplenty these days, serious comers, future leaders in their fields. Hell, we've even got a fellow who double-majored in philosophy and aquatic life management in college and still found time for a national squash title. Think about it, Catamounts. We didn't have squash at Eastern Valley. We didn't have tennis, either, unless you count that trick with the steel hairbrush and the catgut racquet whereby the butt skin of the weak was flayed. Point being, this boy, Will Paulsen (may he rest in peace), left our New Jersey burg without the faintest notion of squash, yet mastered it enough to beat the pants off every prep school Biff in the land, and still carry a four point zero in the question of Why Does the Universe Exist Underwater?"

Hee! And that's just the second page. I'm definitely getting his other books.

I couldn't really settle into anything last week. I tried Out by Natsuo Kirino, but gave up after it took me 4 days to read 100 pages. I just wasn't connecting with it but I'm not sure why. It seemed like one I would normally race through but it just wasn't doing anything for me. Then I tried Colors Insulting to Nature by Cintra Wilson but didn't even make it 25 pages before the same restlessness and impatience set in. I sat on my bed and pulled out different books from my library stack and my to be read bookcase, reading the first page of a couple, flipping through a few others, but nothing seemed to fit until I got to Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker.

Written in 1962, it's a rather simple story of a woman who drives home for her twin sister's wedding. Don't ask me why, but it was perfect for my mood. It's a short book, full of small observations and not a whole lot of action, but I loved it. In it Cassandra is struggling with her sister Judith's need to define herself away from Cassandra and the rest of the family. In her mind they've always tried different things and separated only so that coming back together again would make their relationship that much stronger. "I've tried to explain to my doctor that it's a question of working ceaselessly at being as different as possible because there must be a gap before it can be bridged. And the bridge is the real project." Because of this she views the wedding as a very real threat and wants to talk her sister out of it so they can resume their lives together. I think this is also why she rationalizes away her affairs with her "girl-buddies" (as the book puts it) instead of accepting her sexuality as an individual. Most of the book is written from Cassandra's point of view and, like her sister says at one point, it's hard not to like her (despite the emotional manipulation). The writing is beautiful and the relationships between the characters are finely drawn. I'd definitely recommend it.


Wednesday, April 06, 2005

I heard about Kings of Infinite Space by James Hynes on one of the lit blogs I read. Apparently Hynes is known for his horror stories set in the world of academia. With this one he follows one of his characters from a previous short story out of that world and into the world of civil service office temping. Paul, a former professor, has fallen down the economic ladder. Hard. He's also being haunted by the cat he killed. When he encounters a homeless man dressed as an office worker who asks him, "are we not men?" it begins an adventure that combines the humor of Office Space with the horror of Stephen King.

It's a great set-up and one that promised to be satirical and entertaining. Unfortunately there were no surprises in the book. I saw every plot twist coming a mile away and while the book was fun, either it telegraphed everything or wasn't that original in the first place. Paul was too annoying and wish-washy and his total acceptance of the ghost cat but his refusal to believe anything out of the ordinary about Boy G or his coworkers seemed forced. There were characters and scenes I enjoyed like Callie, Charlotte the ghost cat and how she haunted Paul (the ever present smell of cat pee in his apartment, controlling the tv to show Born Free, old Morris the Cat commercials, and Thomasina), and the final battle among the cubicles (Charlotte's appearance excepted). Basically, it had the potential to be a fantastically scary and funny book but disappointingly settled instead on vaguely amusing, predictable horror.


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