Tuesday, January 31, 2006

I read most of Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci at lunch yesterday and then finished it up on the bus on my way home. As someone who has pretty much always been boy proof, I absolutely could not resist a book with that title. And it didn't disappoint. It's a YA book about a high school senior nicknamed Egg (after a character in her favorite science fiction movie) who considers herself an invisible loner and most definitely boy proof. Of course, cue the entrance of The Boy. He's the new kid who seems to get her the way no one else does and to whom she finds herself attracted. Which, of course, she isn't used to and so manages to screw it up and ends up alienating everyone she knows in the process. Oh sure, the book is total loner geek girl wish fulfillment fantasy, but I did like the characters and it's always nice to see kids who are genuinely interested in science fiction but not portrayed as total losers.


Monday, January 30, 2006

I finished the bulk of Trance by Christopher Sorrentino yesterday while doing endless loads of laundry. It's a fictionalized version of the Patty Hearst kidnapping by the SLA and begins right before the majority of the group meets a fiery end. It then follows "Tania" (Alice Galton's, as she's known in the book, guerrilla name) and the other two remaining members as they go underground and struggle for purpose before finally being captured over a year later. Thinking about it now, it was surprisingly light on action after the initial showdown and most of the tension came from the clashes inside the group and with Tania's growth as a person, but it didn't drag at all because of the irony, satire, and humor. I really enjoyed it, although now I keep picturing scenes from "Cry Baby", which features Patty Hearst as a well-meaning mother whose daughter is rebelling against her and society, and all the different layers of irony contained there.


Monday, January 23, 2006

Saturday I finished up The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad by Stacy Horn. It ended up being a lot less compelling than I was hoping it would be, so there was a lot of skimming happening in the second half of the book. I can't quite decide what exactly bugged me about it. By all rights it should have been fascinating, and it was... when the author backed the hell off and let the detectives speak for themselves. It also didn't help that she deflated any suspense there might have been by summarizing the cases and their conclusions in the first chapters. By the time that particular case rolled back around and I found out the particulars of what happened and who did it, I had little invested in the conclusion because I already knew the outcome.

So then Sunday I was delighted to immerse myself in Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. The narrator is a former model named Alison, now in her fifties, who, during the course of a day, reminisces about her life and her friendship with Veronica, who died of AIDS in the 1980s. I loved the writing - often a paragraph would start out in the present, jump back to the 1980s, jump again to Alison's childhood, and then back to the '80s. It sounds confusing but it never was. It all flowed beautifully. Alison is a flawed heroine, unlikeable at times, who is made a better person through her friendship with Veronica. But this isn't some cloying "how my dying friend made me realize how precious life is" story. Veronica is complex and flawed herself, but together she and Alison seem to click. Good stuff.


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Saturday I read Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, a collection of six short stories and a novella all set in Thailand. They deal primarily with contemporary Thai life or the clash between Thai and American cultures. There wasn't a bad story in the bunch and I enjoyed the collection a lot.

Then Sunday I read The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley, which I saw in a best of the year list over at Asking The Wrong Questions. It's already a contender for my best of 2006 list. It was a great mixture of Dashiell Hammett and Charles Portis, set in the west in the 1970s. There's a hard-boiled detective, of course, hired first to go track down a wandering ex-husband and then a young woman missing for 10 years, but just when both mysteries petered out and I started wondering what the rest of the book was going to be about, true motives and natures came to light and it took off in a new direction. It was funny when it needed to be but didn't try too hard and wasn't afraid to be brutal and bloody either. It was so fantastic that I went right out and bought myself a copy the next day. And today I'm going downstairs to grab all the books we have of his off the shelf.


Friday, January 13, 2006

I also read Acceleration by Graham McNamee this week. It's one Daisy read recently and enjoyed. I enjoyed it as well, even though I thought the ending was a little too tidy. It's about a kid who works in the lost and found department of the Toronto subway. He discovers a journal written by a man who he suspects is a serial killer. It was a quick read and pretty suspenseful toward the end.

And then last night I read Wrecking Crew: The Really Bad News Griffith Park Pirates by John Albert. It's a quick and entertaining non-fiction book about a baseball team made up of thirtysomething punk rockers who never quite made it, ex-junkies, struggling actors, a transvestite, and Dave Navarro's cousin. Hee. John Albert himself was a former drummer for Bad Religion. His friend Mike, after kicking a heroin habit he picked up on tour with his band, decides he wants to play baseball in the community league. He starts collecting players and most of the book is made up of their stories. There is actually some baseball thrown in and there is a lot of humor here too. "Jordan was hitting infield grounders when I saw him stop, stare out into the field, and let out an exasperated sigh. I followed his steely gaze over to where Clay Jefferson was playing second base with a lit cigarette casually dangling from his lip. Jordan started to yell something, but then stopped and just shook his head. He swung the bat and hit a hard bouncing ground ball straight at Clay, who managed to field it perfectly with the heater still attached to his lip." There are the requisite ups and downs, relapses, heartbreaks, and, of course, the final game which decides who wins first place in the league. But there are also observations on growing up and learning to accept their lives. I felt at times there was a larger, better book trying to break free, but overall I really enjoyed it.

Earlier this week I finished American Tabloid by James Ellroy. It takes place in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the build up to and the administration of JFK. The three main characters' fortunes rise and fall and each ends up intricately involved with the FBI, the CIA, the mob, the Kennedy family, and Howard Hughes. The web of details was fascinating and complex, not to mention dangerous and bloody. When the book starts out Kemper Boyd and Ward Littell are FBI agents and former partners. Years ago they arrested Pete Bondurant, the third main character and former Los Angeles police officer who now works procuring dope for Hughes and as a executioner for Jimmy Hoffa, who is being investigated by Robert Kennedy, who hires Boyd, who has been sent undercover by J. Edgar Hoover to keep tabs on the Kennedys, and who gets secret reports from Liddell, who is supposed to be keeping tabs on Communists, but who is instead obsessed with the mob and with finding the secret Teamster's pension fund books that link organized crime with the union. And it only gets more complex when Castro takes over in Cuba and JFK wins the election. The book is ultimately about Ellroy's speculation about who killed JFK and why and he makes an interesting case. As with all the other Ellroy books I've read, the nominal heroes of the book are deeply flawed men who commit horrible crimes, and even the Kennedys are given the Ellroy treatment and are presented as a lightweight skirt chaser (JFK) and an intractable ideologue (RFK). Clearly Ellroy is not a fan of the Kennedy clan. I wish he'd spared them a little sympathy to make them more rounded characters, but all that is reserved for his three heroes who find themselves the pawns of much more powerful men.


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

This year I read 116 books (four more than last year): 31 non-fiction, 21 young adult or children's, 5 short story collections, 2 graphic novels, and 57 adult fiction titles.

Here are the best ones (excluding books I re-read, otherwise it would just be a list of Sean Stewart titles), in the order in which I read them during the year:

Name All The Animals by Alison Smith
An emotional and beautifully written memoir of the first few years after the author's brother's death.

Project X by Jim Shepard
I don't know if I want to ever read it again. The characters and dialogue felt so true, which made the events in the book that much harder to read.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Becky Sharp has joined my list of favorite fictional characters. She's scheming and manipulative but Thackeray clearly had a great affection for her and can't bear to make her unsympathetic.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
I loved everything about this book - the interlocking stories, the abrupt shifts in tone and style, the skillful writing, the characters and their stories... everything. I read all of Mitchell's novels this year, but this was the best.

Ballad of the Whiskey Robber by Julian Rubenstein
So weird and hysterical that I had to constantly remind myself it was non fiction and not some madcap crime novel about a hockey player who became the most successful bank robber his country had ever seen.

Cassandra At The Wedding and Our Gifted Son by Dorothy Baker
Baker was one of my favorite discoveries this year. She wrote novels that, from the outside, seem so simple, but that are packed so full of emotion and family drama that they end up seeming far larger than they actually are.

Homeland by Sam Lipsyte
The single funniest book I read all year.

The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy
It didn't quite pack the punch of White Jazz and I really need to read it in order, but this tale of murder, McCarthyism, and corruption in LA was still riveting.

The History Of Love by Nicole Krauss
A beautifully written book about an old Jewish man who has lost nearly everything in his life and a young girl who is trying to hold on to what she has.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
I'm catching up on my graphic novels and this is one of the best. An aging Batman comes out of retirement when an old enemy, supposedly rehabilitated, starts creating havoc in Gotham. Pundits explore his psychology, the city turns against him, and Superman visits to make him toe the line or else.

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
A bridge collapses, killing several people. A priest who deems it an act of God, sets out to see if he can discover why those people were there at that time - why they were taken by God. It was just beautiful.

Chronicle Of A Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
All the way through this, even though I had been told at the beginning of the death, I kept hoping there was some way to change the events. Who knew you could create so much suspense in a story when the outcome is already known?

The People Of Paper by Salvador Plascencia
This book blew me away. And it wasn't all the inventive structure or postmodern tricks that did it, either. There is a lot of overwhelming emotion in this book which keeps it from being a mere stylistic exercise. The structure is necessary and not an affectation. If I had to pick a #1 title from this list it would be hard to chose between this one and Cloud Atlas.

Decline And Fall and Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
So funny and satirical of the upper class. Loved them.


Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A small vacation round-up:

Despite being off work for nearly two weeks, I read very little. I blame it on 1) the hand held solitaire game my dad got for Christmas and 2) hosting family over New Year's.

I did manage two books, the first of which was Everything Changes by Jonathan Tropper. I was initially uninterested in this book because the summary didn't really appeal to me, but Daisy liked it, I enjoyed his other books, and it was sitting on the new table when I needed to test a selfcheck machine. And it was good - definitely better than I expected. I laughed quite a few times and it reminded me a little of Indecision what with the whole late twenties life crisis thing. I still like his The Book of Joe the best though.

Next up was Just One Look by Harlan Coben, an author I had very little interest in until I found out he went to the same university as DFW and they had classes together. I know. Lame reason. But that's the truth. Also, Daisy sent me a proof copy of one of his books ages ago and I thought I should try him out. So, of course, it was great and I'm now totally excited to read his other books. This book was just a really solid, better-than-average thriller about a wife who discovers an old photograph in her pack of new prints. She shows it to her husband who freaks out and takes off. It twisted and turned and even when I knew there had to be connections, I couldn't figure them out. Sweet.

Now I think I'll avoid work some more and maybe work up a best of the year post...


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