Tuesday, May 31, 2005

So, Night Watch by Sean Stewart. This one usually dukes it out with Mockingbird as my second favorite Sean Stewart book. What elevates it for me is the chapter where Nick dies. Similar in tone and plot to Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire", every time I read it I'm moved to tears by Nick's calm struggle against the cold and his determination to survive so he can rejoin his wife and daughter. It's all the more poignant because he previously comments that the only thing he trusts is the cold. And then that is the very thing that kills him. This struggle is echoed nicely later in the book where Jen is trapped in his mother's apartment building, trying to keep the demons at bay.

There are books that are good by [whatever genre] standards and then there are books that are good by literature standards. I've read some science fiction authors in the last couple of years that I had previously loved but have now discovered aren't actually that good. They are merely good by science fiction standards. Sean Stewart, I'm happy to say, is good by literature standards and was actually one of the authors that first made me realize science fiction writing could be poetic and deep while still telling a fantastic story. I think that's one reason why I don't read much science fiction anymore; it has so many authors that are merely good by its standards. I suppose I became disillusioned by finding authors that could take those conventions and transcend them through original ideas or language and writing ability. Why should I waste my time with merely decent books that require me to lower my expectations?


Friday, May 27, 2005

So yesterday I was reading about the controversy over the Litblog Co-op pick and how some people feel Case Histories (which I read a while back and enjoyed) didn't fit their stated mission. One person mentioned the awards Kate Atkinson had won and that she'd been reviewed by major publications and had lots of critical acclaim and thus wasn't the obscure author in need of help they imagined benefiting from the push of the LBC. While I was a little disappointed in their pick (mostly because I'd already read it) I don't agree that awards and acclaim necessarily guarantee success or recognition. It all reminded me of Sean Stewart (I know, I know - what doesn't, right?) and how he's won awards and been critically acclaimed and reviewed by major publications and yet his entire backlist is out of print. And how I never saw Perfect Circle at Borders or Barnes & Noble. And yet how every single person who read it on my recommendation absolutely loved it.

I was feeling so bummed for Sean that I went right home and read Perfect Circle again. I loved it even more this time and noticed things I hadn't before. Like how in a flashback toward the beginning DK can only interact with AJ through her reflection because he feels too guilty to look at her directly and how this nicely and subtly sets up his future interactions with her ghost. Or all the ways he brings the reader back to DK's feeling like a ghost in his own life and how it builds and builds until he only sees in black and white and yet how none of it comes off as repetitive or overdone. It's just gorgeous. And funny. And sad. And yes, I still cried even though I knew what was going to happen on every page. Man, I love this book.

I'm ignoring all my library books and the to-be-read books clamoring for attention while I dive back into his. I'm in the middle of Night Watch right now and it's even better than I remembered.


Monday, May 23, 2005

I just finished The History of Love by Nicole Krauss which I absolutely loved. Parts of it are narrated by Leo Gursky, an old man living in New York who escaped from Poland during WWII. He wrote a book called The History of Love for a girl named Alma he was in love with which was published under someone else's name in South America. The other main narrator is a 14-year-old girl named Alma who was named after the Alma in The History of Love and who decides to look for her namesake. This is a book about loss: Alma has lost her father and, to a certain extent, her mother is lost to grief and her little brother to his own religious idiosyncrasies. While Leo has seemingly lost everything:

"I lost Fritzy. He was studying in Vilna, Tateh - someone who knew someone told me he'd last been seen on a train. I lost Sari and Hanna to the dogs. I lost Herschel to the rain. I lost Josef to a crack in time. I lost the sound of laughter. I lost a pair of shoes, I'd taken them off to sleep, the shoes Herschel gave me, and when I woke they were gone, I walked barefoot for days and then I broke down and stole someone else's. I lost the only woman I ever wanted to love. I lost years. I lost books. I lost the house where I was born. And I lost Isaac. So who is to say that somewhere along the way, without my knowing it, I didn't also lose my mind?"

It is also a book about identity. I was struck by Leo's idea that someone else seeing you is proof of your existence and yet the ultimate irony comes to Leo, who tries so hard every day to been seen, when he finds his books are published under the names of others. And Alma is forging her identity from what she knows of her father and the things she discovers while searching for the other Alma.

This really was a beautiful book and I loved it so much that I immediately looked for her first book here but ours is missing so I have to run by another library today after work and pick it up.

One or two of the lit blogs I frequent mentioned The Tears of Autumn by Charles McCarry as a great old spy novel that had recently come back into print. That's a genre I'm not all that familiar with so I thought I'd check it out and see what I've been missing. It takes place in 1963 and is about a spy, Paul Christopher, who believes he knows who was responsible for the Kennedy assassination and sets out to prove his theory. It's an interesting little political thriller, but I was a little disappointed that the solution was so apparent so early on. The big summary at the end that was supposed to tie together all the threads felt extraneous. It was also very focused which I can't decide if I liked or not. On the one hand it was nice not to have any stupid red herrings or lame subplots, but on the other hand it felt very... obvious. As if Paul were infallible and never made a wrong guess. The end really felt like a foregone conclusion. I did enjoy it a lot but I think I like a bit more complexity in my books.


Wednesday, May 18, 2005

None of my library books were insisting on being read yesterday so I pulled out Magical Thinking by Augusten Burroughs which I bought way back when it came out but never got around to until now. It fit my mood because I feel like I've been reading a lot of serious or difficult stuff lately and just wanted to laugh. I'd read a few of these essays before on Salon but they were just as funny the second time around and there was enough other new stuff to keep me from getting impatient. The essays are organized in a vaguely chronological order, filling in episodes of his life that he hadn't already detailed in Running With Scissors or Dry. The title identifies the loose thread that runs through many of the essays - that belief that events are under his control; that he can make things happen just by wishing them. Personally, I would wish my cough away.


Tuesday, May 17, 2005

I knew exactly what my next book was going to be - I'm Not the New Me by Wendy McClure, a writer for Television Without Pity, and her own site Pound where she first began chronicling her attempt to lose weight by joining Weight Watchers. I'm a big TWoP fan and have visited Pound quite a few times. Heck, this isn't even the first book I've bought by a TWoP writer (that would be Why Girls Are Weird by Pamie). As you would expect, the book was very funny but also moving like when she talks about her mother's weight issues or her breakups with various boyfriends. There's even one excruciating passage where she describes a guy in a bar repeatedly trying to hit on her by telling her she could get any guy she wanted if she just lost 30 pounds. Can you imagine? There was also this short exchange at a wedding where the groomsmen were dressed in kilts that made me laugh:

Peter, Round 2
"Okay, I do have a question, actually," I tell him.
"Sure," he says.
"Okay, so the kilt is cool and all, but what if you got to dress up as, like, a pirate for a wedding party, would you?" Personally and even when I'm sober I think this is a great idea.
"A pirate?"
"You know, wear a puffy shirt? And a patch and stuff?"
"Why would I want to do that?" he says.

This totally cracked me up because Daisy actually attended a wedding where she had to dress as a pirate. Come to think of it, that was in Chicago, right Daisers? Which is where Wendy McClure lives. Interesting.

Anyway. It was a fast, fun read and even includes some of the truly disgusting old Weight Watchers recipe cards that she has up on another site.


Monday, May 16, 2005

I've been sick and am still not up to full strength, so I'm just going to do a quick rundown of the books I read when I wasn't sleeping or staring out the window in a cold pill induced haze. First up: The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe for my online book group. It was a quick read and I enjoyed it a lot. Claire didn't like the ending and I'm interested to get into our discussion to find out why not. Maybe it was too tidy? I was surprised that Robert didn't annoy me because that kind of hopeless love and blind devotion usually makes me roll my eyes and yell at the character to get a life.

Anyway. Next one: Slave Day by Rob Thomas. My last one of his you'll no doubt be happy to know. I'm glad I ended his backlist with a strong title. This follows a number of students and teachers as they participate in a school fundraiser called "Slave Day" where members of the student government and teachers are auctioned off as slaves for the day. It addresses racism, of course. But there are also some fun storylines about a computer nerd bought by the richest girl in the school, a girl who realizes that being her boyfriend's slave is actually no different from any other day they're together, and a teacher who had lost sight of all the things he enjoyed about teaching. I liked it but I still think Rats Saw God is Rob's best book.

Okay. Last but not least: Improbable by Adam Fawer. I read about this one on one of the lit blogs and was intrigued by both the back story and the description. It's basically a thriller but with a lot of math and a little bit of poker thrown in. The main character, a math wiz, has epilepsy but when he starts a new drug trial he discovers he can predict the future through probability. It's like that movie Rounders crossed with the TV show Numbers. It started to get a little silly toward the end, but overall it was a lot of fun (although it required much suspension of disbelief).


Monday, May 09, 2005

I feel like a lot of my books lately have been very dark and serious (other than my initial foray into Rob Thomas territory) so I wanted something to read that I knew would make me laugh. Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines by Bill Hicks seemed to fit the bill. It was still dark (very, very dark), but funny as hell. My issues with the structure of the book resulted from the way I read it. It wasn't until I was nearly done that I realized this wasn't necessarily a book to read cover to cover without stops. Rather, I should've spaced out my reading, using it as comic relief over a number of months because it largely consists of transcripts of his various shows. Although he did a certain amount of improvisation onstage, there were bits that he did every show. I found myself wishing for some variety when reading these transcripts because those bits started to lose their impact. In one interview toward the end the reporter mentioned that bootleg tapes of his shows circulated among college students. This is what sparked my realization - I couldn't go listen to all my Old 97's bootlegs one after the other no matter how much I love that band because it would be total overkill. And I think that's exactly what happened here. As to the content itself, it's amazing and definitely sad how timely and appropriate his comments on the war and the country still feel 12 years later. He would have screamed himself hoarse these days. At least now we have The Daily Show to carry on his good work.

Next was a book of short stories by Tom Bissell, God Lives in St. Petersburg. All of the stories are set in Central Europe or the Middle East and concern Americans interacting with the local cultures and attitudes. But that doesn't even begin to describe the various situations that occur or the memorable characters that people them. The stories are dark and unrelenting but interesting and never boring. I liked them a lot. Okay, okay. I admit it. I enjoy short stories. Happy now? I still don't think I'll ever prefer them over longer forms, but I no longer have an irrational dislike of them. Bissell also has a non-fiction book out that I've requested. It looks like it's set in the same region and I'm looking forward to reading it.


Thursday, May 05, 2005

I'm two books behind because of a work conference this week. So. First one is Satellite Down by Rob Thomas. (I'll understand if you're getting sick of the Rob Thomas love and assure you there is only one book of his left for me to read.) It's the story of a small town high school student who wants to be a journalist. He gets picked to be a student reporter on a kids cable news program that airs in schools and convinces his conservative parents to let him move to Los Angeles to work on the show but finds he was only picked for his looks and spirals down into the stereotypical big city vices: sex, drugs, vanity, stardom, etc. I had problems with the seemingly effortless way he convinced his parents to let him go and his fall from grace seemed too abrupt and out of character for what was supposedly a smart kid. Not to mention that the Big Bad City was portrayed as the defiler of all that is good and holy of Small Town Middle America. Give me a break. And then there's a tacked on adventure in Ireland where Patrick ditches his news crew and hides out in a small village for a while. By the end he's been stomped on again and the last we see of him he seems to have lost all his ambitions and interests. There was some stuff I liked - the satire of the newsroom and the producers of the show was interesting and I wish the book had explored that instead of becoming a heavy handed portrait of self-destructive behavior or a morality tale about how conservative Christian parents know best. That's not the Rob Thomas I know and love. Pretty disappointing.


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