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Nice Words – by Steve Smith

Nice Words – by Steve Smith

A few years ago, Steve’s mother Pam pulled out this book that Steve wrote when he was in the second grade. It cracked me up, and she gave it to us. I’ve been meaning to post it to the blog for eons. I was looking for stamps the other day and found it. It’s really very sweet, though still very funny. (“I like your baby anyone”??) Also, it’s clear that Steve used up his lifetime store of compliments very early on. Apparently, he had a crush on his teacher. And finally, he won an award for it. So with no further ado …

The Ballad of Lee Cotton – Christopher Wilson

The Ballad of Lee Cotton – Christopher Wilson

I was feeling rather vindicated when I googled “underrated novels” and ended up on this article that cited both Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai and Calvin Baker’s Dominion right off the bat. And while I ended up getting a whole bunch of other books that I haven’t read off that list, I have one to add: Christopher Wilson’s The Ballad of Lee Cotton.

I picked this up in Powell’s having run out of everything else on our camping trip. It looked interesting. Hoo boy. You don’t know the half of it. I was riveted until three in the morning, huddled in my sleeping bag with the Petzl on my head. Why, oh WHY isn’t this better known? Why aren’t all the reviewers singing its praise? Seriously this is up there with The Last Samurai and Transmission and all those other wonderful, unforgettable novels that make whatever is on the New York Times Reviling of Books pale in comparison.

So. Lee Cotton is born to a black mother and an Icelandic father. He looks white. I mean, really white. Which is a problem in the South, pre-Civil Rights. But that’s not all of it because he can hear what people are thinking without them saying a word. He hears voices, a gift he gets from his obeah grandmother who lives in New Orleans. But he manages to get by–until he starts rolling around in the hay with a white girl whose father just happens to be the most rabid Klan member around. Who finds him out. Who beats him up and throws what he thinks is a dead body into a railroad car, which takes him to a hospital in a large city.
Where of course he passes as white, and thus starts a new chapter in his life. And this is just the beginning of Lee Cotton’s story, and of his many transformations into Lee McCoy (as in “the real McCoy”).

Part Zelig, part John Irving at his most wonderfully weird, and really, probably the best novel I’ve read this year, this is a rollicking story that is seriously clever. I loved it.

The Sleeping Father – Matthew Sharpe

The Sleeping Father – Matthew Sharpe

There are some books that become inextricably linked with a time or a place, and even looking at the spare cover (with the Today’s Book Club logo on it that almost dissuaded me from reading it entirely) makes me think of our Oregon trip and camping next to a peaceful lake in the pine trees. Ahh, those halcyon days. Wait a minute–oh, yes, that was the site where we had the generator on one side and three full generations of alcoholics on the other who only shut up after they lost and rediscovered their car keys twice and the camp host came over thrice.

But anyway.

The Schwartzes live in Bellwether, Connecticut, a place that is exactly as it sounds: staunchly middle class, white, relatively affluent. But underneath all this perfection, of course, lurks something else (insert Jaws music). Bernard, the father is ineffectual and clinically depressed–if affable–after his wife leaves him and moves to California. Chris and Cathy, the two children, muddle along until Bernard combines pills and ends up in a coma. No one knows how to deal with it. And so they don’t–even when Bernard awakens with the mind and motor skills of a child.

This was an odd novel. I liked it. It certainly wasn’t one of those blend-into-the-rest-of-them sorts of books. I could say that it represents the breakup of the American nuclear family, or turns the Holden Caulfiend coming-of-age on its head, or even that it’s about the never-ending ability of Americans to remake themselves. And while none of these are false, what really makes this book is the fact that Sharpe manages to convey all the heartbreak of the Schwartz family without ever losing his sense of humor or irony.

How to be Idle – Tom Hodkinson

How to be Idle – Tom Hodkinson

As the queen of procrastination, I naturally picked up this jaunty orange-colored book thinking it would be a witty romp through the hours of the day. And it’s certainly a romp through the hours, but, well, there’s no way to say this nicely, so I’ll just say it: It’s just not that witty. Or funny. Or even that interesting, to be brutally honest. Sure, Hodgkinson makes some interesting points and observations (among them some admittedly pithy observations about daytime vampires), and backs everything up with quotes from other, more famous loafers. But ultimately, I abandoned this. After all, if I need lessons in idleness (which let’s face it, I don’t), I have a much better role model.

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Well hello …

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Tanglewreck – Jeanette Winterson

Tanglewreck – Jeanette Winterson

This summer, I’ve wended my way through a long series of completely forgettable books–aside from Harry Potter, of course– and so haven’t felt compelled to post reviews of anything. But my luck has turned! A few weeks ago, Steve and I went downtown and hit Elliott Bay. Lo and behold, I hit the kiddie lit mother lode. Actually, I only bought two (the rest are on hold at the library), and one of them was a complete dud (Adam Gopnik’s “The King in the Window”). But Jeanette Winterson’s “Tanglewreck”–well!

The time tornadoes are raging when Abel Darwater pulls up to the old house Tanglewreck, where Silver lives with her horrible guardian aunt. He’s looking for the Timekeeper, a mysterious clock that will allow him to control time forever. He whisks Silver and her aunt off to London, still trying to wheedle information out of Silver–who escapes into the underground world of the Throwbacks. Along with her Throwback friend Gabriel, Silver goes on a quest to find the Timekeeper, where she runs into clever plays on words, imaginative representations of particle physics, a commentary on commercialization, and a whole host of other adventures that are surprisingly sophisticated yet still palatable to a younger audience

I don’t really know how to describe Tanglewreck, except to say that it’s a little “His Dark Materials,” a touch “A Wrinkle in Time,” and a smidge “The Phantom Tollbooth.” But we all know that comparisons are odious, and this is wholly its own imaginative work. Highly recommend.

Thoughts on the Latest Harry Potter Movie

Thoughts on the Latest Harry Potter Movie

1) It was tiresome. Actually tiresome. I couldn’t wait for it to end. The only reason I didn’t walk out was because it was that day where the temperatures reached record highs in Seattle, and the theatre was nice and cool.

2) I really, really hate the girl who plays Hermione.

3) What happened to Harry’s scar?

4) I understand it’s impossible to fit umpteen hundred pages in a two-hour movie. But still. They made characters do completely uncharacteristic things. Would Neville really tell Harry that his parents were driven mad by Lord V.? Would Cho have really been the one who snitched on the DA? Would Dumbledore really have COMPLETELY ignored Harry like that? These fell by the wayside in favor of special effects and suspenseful scenes. Which lasted for EVER.

5) So much charm was sucked out of the story. Like Dumbledore’s neat checkmating of Fudge during Harry’s trial.

6) Just wondering: would anyone who hadn’t actually read the book understand what was going on in the movie? This was the issue with number 3 too; when I dragged Steve, he kept on asking what the hell was going on.

7) Helena Bonham-Carter rocked. As did Ralph Fiennes. Dolores Umbridge was good, but didn’t mesh with my impression of her character at ALL.

Harriet the Spy

Harriet the Spy

Which I reread last night, curled up in bed with my Petzel headlamp because Steve was asleep. It was instant childhood revisited. I always pictured Harriet’s bedroom and tiny bathroom as my bedroom and tiny bathroom in our house in Bucharest. It was at the top of a large three story house, and I was the only one up there in a rabbity warren maze of narrow halls and small rooms.

As a kid, it always outraged me that Harriet got blamed for other people reading her notebook. My feeling was always that yeah, they’re curious, but if they ignored the PRIVATE signs emblazoned on it, they deserved what they got. Pure and simple. On rereading it, I still felt that way–Ole Golly was the only adult who makes any sense on what she has to say about it–but more than that, I was struck by how absent Harriet’s parents are. Actually, all the parents are pretty absent, from Sport’s checked out father to Janie’s ineffectual mother. It’s kind of like Charlie Brown adults and their mwah mwah conversations; the parents are there, but they’re not present.

Which all leads to the question: Is Fitzhugh showing the separate world that children inhabit, or is she making a statement on all these parents? I can’t tell. Can you?

Lying Low – Diane Johnson

Lying Low – Diane Johnson

One has certain expections from the author of Le Divorce, L’Affaire, and all those other les nouvelles — or should I be correct and say les autre nouvelles? You know, a wry skewering sense of humor, deft characterization … It’s far from flufff, but all les nouvelles have a certain lightness of touch. Lying Low, on the other hand, is completely different.

Written in 1978, Lying Low seems to be written by another person entirely. It’s really very interesting. There’s no question the novel is dated; it was rather like reading Alison Lurie. Still, it has a power all its own, and though I’m not going to say I liked reading it (it was really quite painful), it was also discovering the origins of a voice: more pensive, more concerned with the “life and death” matters.

The novel is about four people who share a house in a dusty California college town. Theo and her photographer brother Anton. Ouida, a South American woman dodging immigration, and Lynn (an assumed name) who has been roaming the country anonymously ever since she blew up a lab and killed a scientist.

Lynn is, of course, the lynchpin of the story: we follow as her separate identities start merging together and she realizes that the limbo she lives in is unsustainable. at the same time, however, she’s not the only person in hiding; instead, she is in some way emblematic of them all. The end is truly shocking, and I’m still not sure what to make of it.

One final musing: I wonder if Dana Spiotta read this before writing Eat the Document

For Becky, who has forbidden me from discontinuing the book posts

For Becky, who has forbidden me from discontinuing the book posts

What I’ve read this week:

Joanna Martin plows through the records, letters, and other documents of her ancestors, the Fox Strangways, to deliver a portrait of women and children of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Then we plow through 356 very long pages of Wives and Daughters: Women and Children in the Georgian Country House.

The book is divided into two main categories. The first describes the 4 women of the 4 generations of women her book covers. The second category is broken into different sections, such as education, household management, servants (so difficult to find in those days), and so on. The most interesting section, to me at least, was on health (though it STILL didn’t answer that burning question of what Georgian women did without Monistat). It’s pretty amazing that she had all these resources on hand to go through for firsthand accounts of what life was like.

But herein lies the problem, at least for me: There were fascinating characters and riveting snippets of information, but the scholarly tone laid a dull finish over everything. The bulk of the book was taken over by excruciatingly long lists of who earned what, the furniture in the inventory in each room, the exact cost of coal for umpteen houses during the winter of 1797 … I am sure there are far more scholarly people than I who delight in these details, but I wish they had been footnoted instead.
Also, I got the decided impression that the title was tacked on by the publisher to make this more appealing from a feminist perspective. And while it did favor women, the link between the title and the content often felt tenuous.

So in a fit of bookmooching, I got two Patricia Wrede novels (very entertaining froth and by the way, I loved The Enchanted Forest Chronicles). I found the first one, Caught in Crystal, tiresome. But The Raven Ring was a very nice way to pass an evening. Basically, a woman of the Cilhar, a very fierce tribe, goes to collect her mother’s belongings after she is killed under mysterious circumstances. Amongst the things is a ring that has been passed down in the family for seven generations. And everyone seems to want it. Our heroine Elerat teams up with a callow magician and an honorable thief to solve the mystery. Of course she does, and of course she finds love during the process.

Apparently, this is the sixth in the Seneca Falls mystery series, featuring a librarian sleuth in the 1860s.

And I am hooked.

Glynis has the town constable at her beck and call, and a dashing loner named Jacques Sundown in her bed (that is, when he’s around). And she’s the best sleuth in town. So when an upstanding citizen is murdered, the constable whisks her into the middle of the investigation, where she investigates and solvest he case.

This was such a great read less because of the mystery itself (though that was good too), and more because Monfredo does such a great job if infusing history into the novel. At no point is she didactic, but she makes the events of the day–the Civil War and the burgeoning women’s movement–and integral part of the story. I suspect I will be reading all of these.

I miss Steve when he’s gone — but at the same time, I relish the thought of climbing into a freshly made bed and reading til the wee hours of the morning. Remembering how much I loved Jacob Have I Loved as a child, and feeling the need for some comfort reading, I clambered into bed last night with a paperback and a snuggly little pug. It was strange; I had read this so often that the words echoed in my memory, but I was taken anew by its power. I cried. Honestly, I did. There were two main parts that got me. The first was at her grandmother’s malevolent whisper, “”Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated” and she realizes it was God who was speaking. The second was when she bursts out at her mother when they’re washing windows, and her mother tells her that she’ll miss her more than she misses Caroline.

On Books

On Books

Books, books, books.

I’ve kinda decided to stop posting reviews of everything I read because I always feel behind, then put upon, and then the blog languishes unto death. So for now, let me just say that the two best books I’ve read recently are Richard Power’s The Echo Maker (though I still liked In the Time of Our Singing better) and a strange little novel called Philosophy Made Simple by Robert Hellenga. It’s funny because as I was reading it, I told Steve that he would like it. A week later, he picked it up off the coffee table, and asked, “Would I like this?” It’s about a widower who leaves Chicago to go run an avocado farm in Texas, and is really quite charming.

Other than that, I finally reread Jane Eyre a few months ago, and although I had read a couple of novels in which various characters comment on Jane’s rage, what struck me the most was how modern she is, how self aware. Also that it’s a true romance, from the perspective that the disappointments bind two people together just as much–if not more–than when it’s all smooth sailing. She loses her innocence to Mr. Rochester’s spoiled bratitude, and hey, he gives up his sight and a hand. Flip, I know, but I have to tell you: Mr. R is such a BABY. (I tried reading Villette after this, but quickly lost interest.)

And for those of us who first encountered E.M. Forster through Merchant Ivory’s A Room with a View (and oh, that kiss): I’ve been on a Merchant Ivory kick lately, which has led to a complete reread of all things Forster. Oh, lovely, lovely days …

The Emperor’s Children – Claire Messud

The Emperor’s Children – Claire Messud

What is it about New Yorkers? And why is it that novels about New Yorkers are driving me batty? Maybe it’s the endless introspection. Maybe it’s that there’s always the requisite gay friend. Maybe it’s that, well, maybe it’s just that New Yorkers seem to feel that there’s no other place in the world worth living, and while that may be true for them at least, it all seems to lead to a certain genre, if you will, of modern American literature: The New Yorkocity genre.

Okay, it’s time for me to get off my high horse and make a terrible confession. I actually liked this–though not without reserve. Chances are, you’ve already read this for yourself–or at least have read reviews–so I’ll spare you the synopsis.

The good:
Well-written
Somewhat interesting plotline (it gets better)
Some gorgeously rendered scenes

The bad:
Archetypal characters
Endless introspection that doesn’t make them any more real
The kid? Totally unbelievable

Anyone else?

The Thirteenth Tale of the Keep – Diane Egan and Jennifer Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale of the Keep – Diane Egan and Jennifer Setterfield

So, there is no little handy Amazon picture and you’ll have to bear with me. The WP-Amazon plug in that I love so much works neither in IE7 nor the latest WordPress version, and I am far too lazy to save the image, upload it, insert it, look up my amazon associates code, link the image, and THEN write a post.

Can you blame me?

And can you blame me for mixing up these two novels? The Thirteenth Tale and The Keep are both gothic, and both fine for what they are. They both also made me lose interest partway through, though The Thirteenth Tale (which reminded me of that John somebody novel about the wicked grandmother who lures her grandson away from Australia to complete her revenge, what was that called?) was the more interesting of the two. And that’s really about it.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

I tried to read this while Dave was here working on the kitchen. He’s a great guy, but I was feeling very scattered. Not only was I reduced to wandering Seattle like a homeless person, but I was without office, without any place uncluttered to sit (in truth, the house looked like a bomb had hit), and without any peace amid the hammering and drywall dust. All this is to say that I got midway through the book, put it down, and never picked it up again. In short, dear reader, this was an abandoned book. And I am perfectly willing to admit that there were external circumstances that contributed to its abandonment.

However.

The mess in the house matched the mess between the covers.

I am ambivalent about Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Marisha Pessl does a fabulous job of capturing a certain mood and feel. She has a keen eye, and is truly witty. At the same time, I found the novel incredibly disorganized. The story moves along in fits and starts–and when the plot is moving forward, it’s a great read. But there are pages and pages devoted to nothing more than setting the mood with arcane references and intellectual acrobatics. To this end, every paragraph has several long parenthetical asides; my feeling is that if one relies so heavily on parentheses that a quarter of the book is devoted to them, one should consider better organization. Ultimately, Special Topics lost me.

It’s too bad. There was so much good stuff there–but it could have used some ruthless chopping.

Playing Catch Up

Playing Catch Up

I don’t have the energy to write reviews. So here we are again with one-word reviews. I might be able to muster up a couple more words.

The Lucky Ones
Amazing.

Mother's Milk: A Novel
The jury’s still out on this one. It’s wonderfully written, but frankly do I care? Not so much.

Anna of Byzantium
Decent historical kiddie lit.

Dealing with Dragons: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Book One
Enchanting.

The Mislaid Magician or Ten Years After: Being the Private Correspondence Between Two Prominent Families Regarding a Scandal Touching the Highest Levels of Government and the Security of the Realm
This series is truly a delight.

Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog
Totally, completely, absolutely FUN.

The Book of Atrix Wolfe Completely underrated.

The Inner Circle – T.C. Boyle

The Inner Circle – T.C. Boyle

The Inner Circle Once upon a time, I remember really, really liking T.C. Boyle. I devoured The Road to Wellville, Riven Rock, The Tortilla Curtain, and various books of shorts. His writing is so effortless, and he has a unique ability to capture the truly bizarre. But I lost patience with Drop City a chapter in–and while I finished The Inner Circle, I wonder if I’ve outgrown my T.C. Boyle phase or whether his more recent novels have lost their spark.

The Inner Circle is about Kinsey and his sex studies. The protaganist is one John Milk, who tells the story of his involvement with Kinsey as a researcher. He’s recruited while still in college, gets married, conducts research, and basically screws pretty much everything until the lackluster end. The thing is, sex sells and T.C. Boyle is cashing in. And now that I think of it, he’s always cashed in. His writing is as effortless as ever, but I finished the novel with a strong sense of disappointment.

Yesterday’s Houses – Mavis Cheek

Yesterday’s Houses – Mavis Cheek

You note there is no handy-dandy little Amazon picture next to this one; I picked it up at Heathrow, and it’s available only in England. It’s too bad. This was a lovely little novel–apparently Mavis Cheek is big on the other side of the pond. I get the feeling based on past titles and the somewhat too-catchy title that this novel represents a departure from her previous books. Anyone know? In any case, the novel follows the life of her hapless heroine as told through a history of the crummy houses she lives in. It’s full of pithy insight and penetrating observations, and if you can get ahold of a copy, I think you may be reminded of a British Ann Tyler.

You may never ride a camel … but your donated books can

You may never ride a camel … but your donated books can

From Masha Hamilton via The Elegant Variation:

The Camel Bookmobile made its first run almost a decade ago. Three dromedaries trudged through dusty, arid northeastern Kenya near the border with Somalia to bring a library to settlements so tiny and far-flung they’d become nearly invisible; places lacking roads and schools, where most people had never held a book between their hands and where they lived daily with drought, hunger and disease…

The Camel Bookmobile books are primarily in English. The children are taught the language in outdoor “classrooms? under acacia trees for the younger students, indoor classrooms for the older students. They particularly like children’s storybooks, though all fiction is also sought-after, as well as books about math and astronomy, biology and other sciences. …

… The Camel Bookmobile librarians told me their patrons also really appreciate the sense of connection they get when a book is signed from a particular place and person. It widens their understanding of the world. So send a favorite book or two, sign your donations with your name and city, and add a note if you wish.

So come on all you bleeding heart liberals, send a book:

Garissa Provincial Library
For Camel Library
Librarian in Charge, Rashid M. Farah
P.O. Box 245
Garissa, Kenya

And know that you’re in good company.

That’s True of Everybody – Mark Winegardner

That’s True of Everybody – Mark Winegardner

That's True of EverybodyI rarely read short stories; they seem to require a curious mindset, in which one feels intelligent but mildly ADD. Generally, I feel one or the other. That start and stop, start and stop puts me off, before I even begin. And it’s a shame, because my bookshelves are teeming with shorts. Like Mark Winegarder’s That’s True of Everybody. It was one of my Edward R. Hamilton purchases at least a year ago. I had read Winegardner’s novel Crooked River Burning, and liked it. So what the heck, I thought. The book has been moldering away since.

Well, I’m down with the flu–recovering nicely now, thank you–and spent all of Sunday lying in bed reading. One of my informal resolutions for the year is to catch up on the many titles I’ve bought but haven’t read. This was one. And it was a strange one.

Oh, not in a bad way. It’s just that I recently finished this book, and I can barely remember any of the individual shorts–but am still left with a general impression of everything being off somehow, that the strangeness of all the characters is somehow illuminated but universal. It was good.

Fludd – Hilary Mantel

Fludd – Hilary Mantel

Fludd: A NovelThe village of Fetherhoughton is a dour place, indeed. Anchored by moors, the people are superstitious and humorless in their isolation. The Catholic church is presided over by Father Angwin, who has lost his faith, and Sister Perpetua (otherwise known as Purpit) of the convent, an austere, cruel terror of a a woman. When the bishop decrees that the statues in the church are nothing more than idolatrous symbols and must come down, he also threatens Father Angwin with a curate. And thus appears Fludd. But Fludd is not all that he appears to be, and strange, miraculous things start to happen. Recommend.