Monday, August 29, 2005

And now an out-sick-for-a-week roundup:

First was the novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is the current book being discussed over at Bookblog and sounded really interesting and like it would make a good introduction to Garcia Marquez. Boy, was it ever. I loved this book. Knowing the inevitable outcome from the first page only served to increase the tension, as the narrator describes the events of the fateful morning and tries to uncover some hidden truths (most of which stay hidden) years after the fact.

Next I read Our Gifted Son by Dorothy Baker, author of Cassandra At The Wedding which I read and loved earlier this year. Again, as in that book, the focus is on an insular family drama, in this case a musically gifted son coming home to Mexico for the summer after a year at college. While he was gone his mother died and he has to deal with the aftermath of her death upon his return. Baker has a wonderful way with characters and even though her scope is so narrow and not a whole lot actually happens, it all feels shocking and traumatic and important. I love her style and am looking forward to reading her others.

Then I picked up A Son Called Gabriel by Damian McNicholl which I first heard about over at Conversational Reading. I checked it out ages ago but bumped it up in the queue because someone else has a hold on it and I really hate it when other people hoard books I have holds on. I'm glad I did because it was lovely. It's about a boy growing up gay in rural Ireland during the 1960s and 1970s. I was actually mad when it ended because I wanted to know what would happen next. He was just setting off for college in London - how soon before his convenient girlfriend ("Protestantism wasn't even as evil as homosexuality.") faded away? When would he find his first real boyfriend? Would being there radicalize his politics? I want to know, dammit! Heh.

And last, courtesy of Rake's Progress, I read Jujitsu For Christ by Jack Butler. Much deeper than the title would suggest, it was a very funny and moving book about a white man living in a black neighborhood in Mississippi during the 1960s. Roger starts out an innocent but through his friendships with the neighbors he becomes aware of the racial injustice all around him. As his awareness grows, the book's tone becomes more serious, and the events described do the same until we are left with tragedy. But the shift doesn't feel false or abrupt and is very well done. This is another author whose other books I'm looking forward to.


Monday, August 22, 2005

Vacation round-up.

First was Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. It totally reminded me of all the Louis L'Amour westerns my grandpa used to read. But deeper, with a hero who admits he begins to like the vengeance and the killing.

Then it was on to lighter fare with The Serpent On The Crown by Elizabeth Peters which my dad brought up for me to read after he finished. I was so glad to find that this one was much better than the last one. I guess I don't have to give up on this series after all.

After that one I pulled out Killing Yourself To Live by Chuck Klosterman because I'm going to the signing tonight and wanted to read it before I got there. Many have complained about it being all mopey about his ex-girlfriends and yeah, it was, but I didn't care because it was still funny and had enough music stuff to keep it moving. Although his idea of obscure (Sloan, Lemonheads, Ben Folds Five, and Raymond Carver) totally isn't. Seriously, dude, on what planet are those obscure references? I'd now like to introduce you to the indier-than-thou asshole side of me...

I wanted to follow that one up with Travels With Charley (what with the whole cross country trip thing) but I wasn't feeling it, so decided on Norwood by Charles Portis instead. It had a long trip in it too, so it all worked out just fine. I dug this one a lot and am looking forward to reading his other books.

That brings me to the weekend. Home. Getting sick. I spent Sunday reading Lulu Dark Can See Through Walls by Bennett Madison which was completely predictable but so enjoyable I didn't mind all that much. It was like a cross between Nancy Drew, Single White Female, and one of those chick-lit books about shopping I haven't read. The author is all of 23 and this is his second book. I feel so unsuccessful.

Then I busted out The Complete Frank Miller Batman by, well, Frank Miller, so I could read Batman: Year One. It was funny though - the introduction was so defensive about adults reading comics (it was written in 1989) and now we've come so far out the other side that Michael Chabon is giving speeches about how it's sad that comics aren't for kids anymore. Anyway. Loved it, but not as much as The Dark Knight because really, how do you beat Batman kicking Superman's ass?


Wednesday, August 10, 2005

I could never remember if Bee Season or The Secret Life of Bees was the book about spelling bees. I knew one was and the other was marketed directly at Oprah women and their book clubs to teach them very important lessons about Intolerance and Racism and The Nature Of Women, which didn't really appeal to me. Once I sorted out which was which, I put Bee Season by Myla Goldberg on my list. Claire recommended it when I saw it in her bookcase recently, so I finally got around to checking it out.

And, well, only the first quarter or so of the book covers spelling bees. After that it spirals into something much different and deeper than I was expecting. Eliza's previously undiscovered affinity for spelling upsets the delicate balance in her family, sending each member on different but parallel paths toward wholeness or perfection or God, all of which intentionally start to seem like the same thing. I was a little uneasy with this turn, unsure if the author could pull it off, but, for the most part, she does. The events aren't hard to predict but there are unexpected results or detours along the way that keep the book interesting, even as the family disintegrates. I liked Goldberg's writing style and her use of language, with the exception of her stylistic quirk of occasionally using dangling participles. She didn't do it often enough so that it became a part of the rhythm of the book, but that just meant I noticed every single one. Thankfully she didn't overdue them or I probably would've gotten too annoyed to finish the book.


Monday, August 08, 2005

So it was with relief yesterday that I retreated to The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. I can't believe I never had to read this in school or that I never got to it on my own until now. Actually, to be honest, I'm woefully behind on my classics reading so it's not all that surprising I haven't read it. I finally checked it out because of an interview with David Mitchell where he praised the novel and said that Luisa Rey in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas was named in honor of it. The book opens in the immediate aftermath of a terrible tragedy - a bridge in Peru assumed to be "among the things that last forever" broke and cast five people into the canyon to their deaths. We meet them through interlocking stories describing each person and the events that led them to that bridge at that moment. It really is a gorgeous book and I think I'm going to have to buy a copy for my own collection.

I took a break for a little mindless enjoyment this weekend with Through Violet Eyes by Stephen Woodworth, one of those lurid serial killer mysteries I used to live on in high school. I grabbed this one because it was clearly inspired by Phillip K. Dick, with its "Violets" who channel the dead for the government. A serial killer is preying on the Violets and an FBI agent, given guard duty over a Violet (with whom he falls in love, of course), works with his charge to solve the murders. There were some nice touches like the "soul cage" (which, oddly enough, I also encountered in a different context in The Insult). The red herrings were pretty obvious and it wasn't too difficult to figure out what was going on, but overall it wasn't horrible. I gave up on the sequel, With Red Hands, though because it only took me a little over 50 pages to figure it out and it started to get annoying. I skipped to the end and found out I was dead on with my guesses and decided that I was done with the series (a third book is due this fall). Side note: The second book got a starred review in PW. Really.


Friday, August 05, 2005

I finished Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement by Rodney Rothman yesterday. It's a funny account of how Rothman, a TV writer at a loss for something to do after "Undeclared" was cancelled, decided to check out what was in store for him when he retired. He moved to Florida where he lived in a large retirement community with a roommate, a former piano teacher harboring illegal pets. He gradually made friends, joined all the clubs he could, and tagged along on various social activities, discovering in the process that he was the worst softball player on the team, a bad shuffleboard player, and that the old guys were having a lot more luck with the ladies than he was. It made me laugh out loud several times and was overall an amusing account of what retirement in Florida is like.


Thursday, August 04, 2005

The countdown in John Green's Looking For Alaska begins at one hundred thirty-six days. Unaware of what will happen when we reach the day of, for the reader that ticking clock casts an uneasy shadow over life at Culver Creek, a demanding boarding school in Alabama. We get to know a group of friends right along with the new kid, Miles, who is immediately smitten with Alaska, a beautiful but moody girl who is the center of much of the action, whether it's illicit smoking and drinking or pranking the "Weekend Warriors." When the tragedy strikes, Miles and his friends have to deal with their own feelings of guilt by trying to piece together why it happened. Although the answer was fairly obvious, the "After" section was still touching and even funny at times. I enjoyed the book a lot and I hope they don't screw the movie up too badly.


Tuesday, August 02, 2005

I almost forgot - I read Louise Welsh's novella Tamburlaine Must Die during lunch yesterday. It's a quick little mystery speculating on the last few days of Christopher Marlowe's life. She puts forth that Marlowe's death was actually part of a larger plot against Sir Walter Raleigh and Marlowe was killed for refusing to go along with it. It's structured as a few last journal entries written by Marlowe before he goes off to face what he is sure will be his death. There's a lot packed into this book in such a small space and everything is stripped down to its essential features as a result. Somehow though there is still room for Marlowe's wit, several murders, and, of course, sex. I enjoyed the book a lot and found myself wishing more than once that Welsh had expanded it into a full novel. I bet it would've been spectacular.


Monday, August 01, 2005

Rae and Claire came down to visit me this weekend and yesterday we spent all day by the pool, alternately swimming and reading. And sometimes reading while sitting in the pool. I got a sunburn (I've lost my Las Vegas base tan completely and have reverted back to the pale white ghost I was always meant to be) while reading Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. I swear I was sitting under an umbrella the whole time. Anyway. This totally rocked. Batman comes out of retirement into a world not unlike The Incredibles or The Watchmen, where superheroes are legislated against and have either disappeared or gone underground. Commissioner Gordon is retiring and his replacement makes it her first duty to issue arrest warrants for Batman, various talking heads (including Arkham's head psychiatrist) are saying he is responsible for the murders commited by the newly released Two-Face and Joker, and, to top it all off, the President sends Superman to quiet him down. There's also a new Robin, Batman complaining about sore muscles, a nuclear bomb exploding, and a nice twist at the end. I've already placed my hold for Batman: Year One.

After seeing a couple of posts on various litblogs about Rupert Thomson, two of which singled out his book, The Insult, as particularly good, I decided to pick it up. The story begins with Martin, the narrator, getting randomly shot in the head in the parking lot of a grocery store. He recovers, but has been blinded by the injury. He starts to believe he can see, but only at night, although his doctor tries to convince him he is just experiencing a condition that makes blind people think they can see despite all evidence to the contrary. Whom to trust? Martin, in whose head we reside and who is so convincing and assured as he moves around the city at night? Or the doctor, who Martin believes is experimenting on him? Everything comes to a head when Martin heads up into the hills to try and discover what happened to the woman he was in love with who disappeared just as abruptly as she appeared in his life.

Overall I enjoyed the book a lot. It was a little slow at first, but picked up as soon as Martin took off on his own. But I found myself losing patience with it toward the end. Everything came together neatly, but nothing felt especially revelatory. The book wasn't disappointing exactly but it fell a little short of amazing for me. That said, I am still interested in reading his new one. But now my expectations will be slightly lower.


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